As micro-mobility is legally enabled in the UK in the coming months, we can expect to see the regional and global players arrive

 
A scooter in a cycle lane in Vauxhall, London

 
Micro-mobility is a contemporary phenomenon that is broadening the range of mobility solutions available to travellers in cities across Europe and around the world. It is particularly offering more choice in first/last mile solutions and shorter distance intra-city travel.

The rise of micro-mobility has also paralleled the rise of new ways of developing the sharing economy. New business models that utilise shared services are becoming particularly relevant and popular in the transport sphere across a range of modes and services.

However, these new shared micro-mobility services, and in particular e-scooters and shared bicycles, are often resulting in excessive on-street congestion, conflict, a poor reception by local residents and complaints from other pavement and road users. Much of this conflict is related to a lack of local authority and user clarity about where these modes should be used and whether they are more like a traditional bicycle or a powered road vehicle.

It should be noted that historically almost every new mode of transport has led to a period of turbulence and confusion and that robust, fair, and effective regulation of any limited resource, such as road and pavement space in cities, is inevitable. This should naturally be the role of good government policy.

But, what is micro-mobility? The rapid growth of this industry, the use of a very “generic” title, and differing use of language within the English speaking world, as well as translations to and from other languages, has led to widespread use of multiple labels for the various types of devices.

In summary, micro-mobility includes devices used for personal transportation with limited weights and power supply, if any, which restrict speeds to a maximum of approximately 45km/h or 25mph. Micro-mobility includes the use of exclusively human-powered vehicles such as bicycles, skates, skateboards and kick-scooters.

A non-exclusive list of such devices would thus include, with attempts to avoid language ambiguity:

  • Classic bicycles as well as electric (e)bikes, or pedal assisted bicycles. Electric bikes typically will have some form of speed restriction in the electric mode;
  • Petrol/electric mopeds with some restriction on speed and/or power;
  • Mobility scooters, which enable the traveller to sit and may be more typically associated with people with disabilities;
  • Standing kick/push scooters as well as electrically powered e-scooters;
  • Skateboards (kick or electrically powered);
  • Self-balancing/hoverboard devices which may have one or two wheels and may range from small lightweight devices to a classic standing “Segway” upright unit.

On a typical day in London, I would expect to see someone using almost all of these devices on the roads, paths and pavements of the city.

On a typical day in London, I would expect to see someone using almost all of these devices on the roads, paths and pavements of the city. What is limiting the expansion of many of these modes in the UK is the inability of many e-powered devices to be formally supported by local authorities or deployed as legally accepted shared businesses due to the non-supportive UK legislative environment. In effect, for example all e-scooters remain illegal in the UK on both public pavements and roadways due to long standing legislation. This is not the case in many other European countries.

The UK government is now intending to change the legislative environment for micro-mobility and enable, nationally or in selected areas, the use of some/all e-powered micro-mobility devices. This is an exciting new business opportunity and potential advancement in the provision of local mobility services. But, as we have seen in Europe, micro-mobility can help solve as well as cause a number of problems.

Generally, the UK has not rolled out dedicated cycle facilities and not yet seen as widespread use of cycling as in some other European countries. Particular gaps include inter-urban dedicated cycle lanes/off road routes, as well as dedicated lanes within UK cities. It remains difficult for cyclists to experience a consistent and dedicated travel experience. This issue will become more complex with the arrival of more micro-mobility devices in the UK.

Shared micro-mobility has often been seen as meaning e-scooters – and in practice only one typical design of e-scooter with minimal design variations. Amongst a range of issues with this form is the shockingly short operational life of the device and its level of comfort on varied European street surfaces. The current devices are also particularly suited to people with a good sense of balance and desire for a fair degree of speed.

There are many user needs in the transport space and much of the thinking in public transport over recent years has been about this diversity – social inclusion, ageing, people with disabilities, youth, visitors, commuters, etc. The UK has a long history in terms of design and product innovation and this is an opportunity to deploy this thinking into the micro-mobility product portfolio!

Why do we not see more diversity in the user forms for micro-mobility services? This could cater to specific groups of travellers, or in certain locales.

For example, three wheeled devices may offer more stability and safety for older users who don’t trust their abilities on a two wheeled device and don’t necessarily see speed as so important. The ability to sit or perch on a device may be appealing to many slightly older users. Designs with larger wheels or stronger suspensions would be useful for streets which may be cobblestoned, gravel paths or other typical UK surfaces. More robust multi-wheeled devices may be more appropriate in the wetter climates of northern England, Wales and Scotland.

Designs that offer more noticeability to other road and pavement users and thus, improved safety can increase the attractiveness and relevance of these services to all travellers.

I’ve been struck by the range of micro-mobility devices seen at trade events on the continent over the last few years which were developed by entrepreneurs as well as larger established manufacturers

I’ve been struck by the range of micro-mobility devices seen at trade events on the continent over the last few years which were developed by entrepreneurs as well as larger established manufacturers. While much of this diversity stems from the differences in local laws on types of devices that can be used on public roads and pavements, it does lead to consideration of the range of potential opportunities and solutions that exist across the micro-mobility market.

Also, micro-mobility is an opportunity for small, local businesses to establish themselves in the mobility eco-system and offer locally tailored solutions.

As micro-mobility is legally enabled in the UK in the coming months, we can expect to see the regional and global players arrive, particularly in London and the largest UK cities. They will inevitably bring their established business models and fleet designs. This should be welcomed in the UK, subject to a range of best practice considerations at the local level by councils in a tendering or licensing process.

However, within this process is the opportunity for the UK to encourage the overall industry to go beyond what we have already seen in other European cities and bring new designs that cater for a wider set of customers and user cases to the streets. This is the way in which micro-mobility can truly be part of the wider transport system and bring long lasting and comprehensive benefits to the travelling public and deliver a more comprehensive and sustainable transport system.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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