What is Micromobility and How Is It Changing Urban Commuting?
What is micromobility?
While there’s not a universally accepted definition of micromobility, most people use the word to refer to small, lightweight (under 500 kg) vehicles that can operate safely in urban areas, such as scooters and e-bikes. Micromobility vehicles typically use bike lanes and travel at limited speeds to carry passengers for short distances. Vehicles are typically shared—rented via smartphone app or picked up at a docking station—and are often programmed to operate only within a designated set of geographical boundaries.
Here’s a typical example of micromobility in action: a passenger emerges from a subway station, pulls out her smartphone, and rents a nearby electric scooter to traverse the last few blocks to her office. She leaves the scooter parked outside the building, where another renter picks it up half an hour later.
Jump to what you need to know:
- The benefits of micromobility
- Micromobility vehicles
- Micromobility companies
- Where is micromobility used?
- How big is the micromobility market?
- Why micromobility is growing quickly
- Challenges for the future of micromobility
The benefits of micromobility
Riding a scooter through a downtown area might sound like a fun way to revisit your childhood, but micromobility also offers several key benefits for those who use it regularly.
Both production and fuel costs are low for micromobility vehicles. Dozens of electric scooters can be purchased for the price of a single electric car, and e-bikes are even more economical. Because small vehicles consume much less energy, fuel costs are also far lower for an electric scooter than a traditional or electric car.
Whether powered by electricity or human energy, micromobility vehicles are more sustainable than traditional cars and public transportation options such as buses and trains. They don’t rely on fossil fuels, meaning their use does not deplete the earth’s limited resources. And they don’t emit greenhouse gases, meaning they will not contribute to climate change.
Micromobility vehicles are certainly more energy-efficient than cars. But they’re also often more convenient for urban transit—users can rent from a dock or check an app to see where the nearest vehicle sits, rent it, and go. At the end of the journey, they either drop it at a nearby docking station or simply park it anywhere—a process that’s much easier and more time-efficient than parking a car in a garage.
Like the term itself, the category of micromobility vehicles has not been closely defined and is still expanding as new innovations emerge. For now, though, most micromobility vehicles fall into these categories:
Electric Scooters (e-Scooters)
Electric scooters (e-scooters) are the best-known micromobility vehicles and certainly the most popular around the world. In North America alone, there were 85,000 shared scooters on the streets by the end of 2018. An e-scooter is a stand-up scooter with a foot deck, two wheels, and handlebars equipped with acceleration, steering, and braking capabilities. They typically travel at maximum speeds of 15–20 mph and have been introduced in mid-to-large cities around the world via scooter sharing systems. Riders can download a smartphone app, find the nearest scooter to rent, and pay a minute-by-minute fee for usage. When done, they can park the scooter anywhere and return it via the app.
Electric Bikes (e-Bikes)
Electric bicycles (e-bikes) more closely resemble traditional bicycles than motorcycles. They’re essentially bicycles with the addition of a few electrical components: a battery, motor, and controller. Operation is very similar to riding a regular bike—pedaling and steering will be very familiar for seasoned cyclists. The electric components are meant to ease the difficulty of riding up steep inclines or facing a stiff headwind. Most e-bikes allow riders to pedal completely on their own, augment their efforts with some help from the motor, or switch to electric-only mode to let the bike propel itself. Like e-scooters, the e-bike’s top speed in electric-only mode is 20 mph. This keeps the vehicles in the same class as regular bicycles, allowing them to travel within designated bike lanes. Some e-bike sharing companies use a dockless bike model, allowing renters to leave their vehicles anywhere when they’re done riding. Others must be rented from and returned to designated docking stations, typically located in highly populated areas around a city.
Electric Skateboards (e-Skateboards)
Like e-scooters and e-bikes, e-skateboards resemble their traditional counterparts, with the addition of a few electronic components. The typical e-skateboard includes a battery and an electric motor, allowing riders to travel at speeds of 18–28 mph. (Some e-skateboards can travel at 40 mph or more, but those wouldn’t be ideal for micromobility applications.) Compact and portable, e-skateboards are easier to ride than normal skateboards because they’re so stable.
Electric Unicycles (e-Unicycles)
Less widely used than e-bikes and e-scooters, e-unicycles look like single wheels with pedals. They’re more challenging to ride than their counterparts, so they are less likely to be used in micromobility deployments—but they have a few distinct advantages. E-unicycles are compact, portable, and offer excellent performance even on rough terrain.
Not yet available in the U.S., Cowboy (https://cowboy.com/) e-bikes have detachable batteries, theft and crash detection, and a speed cap of 25 km/h (15.5 mph), concurrent with Europe’s limit for micromobility vehicles.
As micromobility becomes more popular, companies around the world are vying for their share in the emerging market. Let’s take a closer look at some of the current top players in this space.
Offering a unique fleet of green, durable vehicles that are comfortable and safe to ride, Veo has dozens of cities and universities nationwide as partners in its mobility share programs. One of micromobility's fastest growing and most innovative companies, Veo designs and manufactures their own e-bikes and e-scooters, which means they can test their connectivity and iterate quickly during the build process before they are shipped overseas.
Launched in 2017 as a San Francisco startup, Spin is now owned by the Ford Motor Company. Originally, the company developed a dockless bike-sharing system that relies on a mobile app for user access. Today, Spin focuses mainly on e-scooters and operates on university campuses and in cities throughout the U.S. and Germany.
Also created in 2017, Bird sprang up in Santa Monica, California, and has spread its wings to operate in more than 100 cities around the world. Users can consult the Bird app to find nearby e-scooters available for rental, and even check status of battery charges.
Based in San Francisco, Lime operates e-scooters, e-bikes, traditional bikes, and car sharing systems, encompassing the full scope of micromobility services. Like other dockless rental services, Lime’s e-scooters can be found using a mobile app and returned anywhere when the ride is complete.
Known for its car ride sharing services, Lyft also operates micromobility deployments in a number of cities—including bikes and e-scooters, depending on the location. Lyft’s app now shows users all the available transportation options in their area on a single pane.
The U.S.’s other car ride-sharing giant, Uber, also has a finger in the micromobility pie. App users can rent Uber e-bikes and e-scooters through the app, and can also access Lime scooters in some locations due to a recent agreement between the two companies.
Wheels has a unique offering: a seated scooter that’s reportedly quite a bit safer than most of the standing scooters. The company’s vehicles also come equipped with helmets so riders don’t have to remember to bring their own. While not as ubiquitous as other types yet, Wheels scooters are more accessible for people with limited mobility—not to mention more appealing for older generations because of the added safety. Currently, Wheels vehicles are rentable in Los Angeles, Scottsdale, San Diego, Atlanta, Cleveland and Dallas.
With a line of high-tech e-bikes, Amsterdam-based Van Moof offers riders several features including automatic gear shifting, acceleration boosts, and hydraulic brakes. The company’s business model relies on product purchase rather than ride sharing, although Van Moof recently introduced a subscription service in several cities around the world that allows users to pay a monthly fee to rent one of their e-bikes.
Not yet available in the U.S., Cowboy e-bikes have detachable batteries, theft and crash detection, and a speed cap of 25 km/h (15.5 mph), concurrent with Europe’s limit for micromobility vehicles. The bikes can take riders about 70 km on a single charge. While Cowboy currently only sells its bikes, some third-party companies offer weekly rentals in several European cities.
Where is micromobility used?
The popularity of micromobility solutions differs among cities around the globe—and even across the U.S. Success often depends on the local terrain and city layout. For example, a city that sprawls across a miles-wide area cut through with multiple interstates won’t work as well as a more centralized urban district with adequate bike lanes already in existence. Some cities, such as Seattle, chose to keep micromobility sharing companies out until they could provide enough bike lanes to operate them safely. (They just opened up for a pilot program in August 2020, though.) Others embraced the unknown, wanting to get an early jump on a growing trend. Let’s take a closer look at a few U.S. cities where micromobility currently has a presence and how they’ve handled it.
Los Angeles is rife with micromobility options, from e-scooters to e-bikes and more. There’s been an ongoing problem with users abandoning vehicles in the middle of sidewalks and roads, so city authorities are introducing new regulations in 2021 to control usage. In particular, the new rules require companies to retrofit their vehicles so they can be locked to bike racks.
As previously mentioned, Seattle banned micromobility sharing companies starting in 2018, but in 2020 they opened to three companies (Lime, Wheels, and LINK) for a pilot project. Depending on how it goes, the micromobility scene in the city could grow rapidly.
Like Seattle, New York has kept e-bike and e-scooter sharing programs out of the city until recently. In 2020, the New York City Council passed local regulations for micromobility and mandated an e-scooter sharing pilot program for the next year or two. Because micromobility vehicles transport one person at a time in the open air, city officials see them as a way to minimize the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Since 2016, Portland has embraced micromobility in the form of station-based bike sharing, with a scooter-sharing program introduced in 2018. The scooters are dockless, and riding is prohibited inside city parks except on roads and parking areas.
Home base of several micromobility companies, San Francisco has been a pioneer of shared lightweight vehicles beginning with a bike-sharing program in 2013. In 2017, the city became one of the first to allow dockless bike-sharing under careful regulations. E-bikes and e-scooters joined the party, and the initial chaos prompted the city to rethink its regulations and permitting process. Providers are now limited to a few licensed companies, making it simpler for city officials to enforce regulations.
E-scooters are plentiful in Atlanta, and the city is struggling to get a handle on regulating them. Prompted by an increase in traffic accidents and e-scooter related deaths, the city announced a $5 million plan to upgrade city streets over the next few years to accommodate micromobility vehicles.
With both a nonprofit bike-sharing program and multiple e-bike and e-scooter providers on hand, Denver has a history of offering citizens the latest and greatest in micromobility transportation options. The city’s bike-sharing program shut down in early 2020, and Denver is struggling to find a suitable replacement. In the meantime, they’ve embraced e-scooter companies by granting long-term licenses to at least one provider. Narrowing the field allows the city to regulate e-scooter usage more closely.
With eight licensed e-scooter providers and more than 18,000 micromobility vehicles available, Austin makes it easy for residents and visitors to locate an e-bike or e-scooter whenever and wherever they need it. Between 2018 and 2019, e-scooter rides grew to nearly 500,000 per month within the city.
How big is the micromobility market?
The micromobility market grew exponentially from 2017–2019, but like nearly every other sector, it suffered when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Once lockdowns began to lift, though, riders came out in full force again, and forecasters predict the global market for shared bikes will surpass $5 billion by 2025—up from $2.7 billion in 2018. The same report predicts global micromobility market revenue will exceed $9.8 billion by 2025.
The e-scooter sharing segment of the market is expected to grow at the highest rates, mainly as a result of large venture capital investments from around the world. In more sprawling urban areas, though, there’s a growing demand for e-bikes because of their ability to traverse longer distances easily.
Why micromobility is growing quickly
What’s driving the rapid growth? Citizens are interested in new ways to commute, save money, and reduce emissions. Rising populations in cities around the world can cause car traffic to become overwhelming. Micromobility vehicles provide a convenient “last mile” option to get people from place to place inside an urban area, and can be the shifting point for commuters deciding to use public transit instead of driving a car. For example, a commuter can ride public transit from the suburbs into the city, then rent an e-scooter to take him from the bus station to his office.
Challenges for the future of micromobility
While the growth of micromobility transportation options is rapid and exciting, the industry faces several hurdles. Let’s take a closer look at a few.
Logistics and Maintenance
When a micromobility company releases a thousand dockless e-scooters in an urban area, they’re likely to face logistical and maintenance issues. How will they keep up with routine maintenance such as battery charging or replacement, cleaning, and repairs? Do their sensors provide insights into the health of the vehicle? Can users report maintenance issues inside their mobile app? Companies must anticipate and address these and other issues, which are distinct to the micromobility market.
Theft and Misuse
Even when most users follow the rules and take care of the vehicles, accidents happen—and there are always a few people who will steal, damage, or neglect items that are circulating the city without direct human oversight. Vehicles parked or abandoned on sidewalks and other high-traffic areas present another persistent problem, causing both frustration and safety issues. Some cities have ejected micromobility companies for not overseeing their fleets closely enough.
Each e-vehicle is equipped with an IoT SIM card, GPS and connectivity module, allowing it to connect to the micromobility company’s app. Without this connectivity piece, the vehicle will not function. For stability of service, it’s important for micromobility companies to ensure their fleet has access to reliable connectivity wherever in the world they’re deployed. Hologram gives you access to 470 networks, ensuring flexible coverage around the world.
Safety is an ongoing issue for micromobility. Part of the burden for this problem lies with cities, which may not have proper infrastructure (specifically, adequate bike lanes) in place for operation of micromobility vehicles. But micromobility companies must also consider how to promote safe ridership. Some offer training sessions for new riders, while others provide free helmets or attach them to their vehicles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many providers also went to extra lengths to disinfect high-touch vehicle surfaces more often.
In a post-COVID world, micromobility might have an even bigger role to play. With the growth of remote and flexible work, some project that car traffic will remain lower in urban areas, clearing the way for more micromobility vehicles to operate safely. If the virus threat persists, solo outdoor transportation options such as e-scooters and e-bikes will likely be more popular—and safer—than car ride-sharing and public transit. While it’s impossible to predict the future, it’s clear that micromobility has come a long way in the past few years and is set to play a key role in the smart cities of tomorrow.