Industry expert Scott Shepard highlights why close cooperation between shared micromobility providers and public authorities is key for a successful transformation of urban mobility. This article looks into the early days of micromobility adoption and how the public-private relationship changed over time. In taking a more collaborative approach to integrating shared mobility options, long-term sustainability can be ensured.
Micromobility has seen a greater evolution in its short lifespan than perhaps any similar innovation that has been brought to market in recent times. It could be considered no less than a revolution in urban mobility, and one that has completely transformed the way we travel throughout our cities. While this revolution has opened new opportunities for freedom and movement, there have been many challenges along the way. What we´ve done here is to explore the evolution of micromobility in cities, the relationship between the public and private sectors, and the outlook for greater realization of multimodality across all modes of transportation.
The disruptive power of new form factors
The relationship between the public and private sector in the realm of micromobility has been a bumpy one to say the least. From the first Bird scooters hitting the boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, to dockless e-bikes and everything in between, to witness this transformation in personal and shared mobility was a phenomenon in and of itself. The rapid pace and sustained effort to “launch” in target cities and geographical markets did not leave much time to analyze, strategize, or reflect on the impact that such schemes would have on the complex urban fabric. The ethos to “move fast and break things” was taken to a whole new level, reaching an apex in 2018.
While this transformation indeed pushes the envelope and disrupts existing markets and behaviors, it is time now to take stock of where we are currently at. Up until recently, many major mobility providers either did not communicate directly with cities and public transport agencies or did so minimally. With the advent of the Los Angeles MDS data specification in late 2018, cities began to adopt this open-source standard and establish an open communication channel on the location and distribution of mobility assets (primarily scooters).
Europe has witnessed positive trends towards public-private coordination in the mobility ecosystem right before the COVID-19 crisis. Voi was a leader in proactively reaching out to Nordic governments to obtain permission to operate, and Tier has taken a similar approach in developing unique partnerships and promoting the usage of public transport within its user experience. However, many of the US-based mobility providers have taken an approach (to both the North American and European markets) that is “ask for forgiveness, not permission”. This is an unsustainable strategy and business model and when we return to a reopening of the economy, operators that run roughshod over the public sector will more than likely continue to fail.
Lessons learned during the early days of micromobility in Europe
To understand why close collaboration between private providers and government agencies is essential to the success of new mobility, it helps to look to the past. In this article, the expansion of shared micromobility will be examined primarily from a European perspective, although its boom initially started in Asia. After several Chinese startups entered stationless bike sharing on a larger scale in their home markets, providers such as Ofo and Mobike expanded quickly into European cities as well. Since station-based bike sharing services were the norm in Europe’s micromobility mix at that time, the free-floating services from China promised a new kind of mobility experience.
Literally overnight, tens of thousands of dockless bikes were available in Europe without operators informing local authorities about their market entries beforehand. The sudden arrival of unknown service providers and their large fleet sizes posed great challenges within these new markets. Randomly parked masses of bicycles obstructed other road users and overwhelmed the local infrastructure as regulative frameworks didn’t exist at all. In addition, citizens were insufficiently educated about this new type of mobility service due to the lack of pre-launch communication. The ambush-like introduction of new micromobility offerings prevented rapid customer adoption and created a negative media response with which the industry is still struggling today. Further tension was caused by the global rise of shared kick scooters in 2018. Operators were already pushing to get started with their services although the new form factor wasn’t part of many road regulations yet. Since then, local authorities have been trying to keep up with the rapid developments in shared mobility to gain control.
Think global, act local!
The above mentioned developments during the early days of the shared micromobility business highlight one of its key challenges. Although international operators are active in a global and fast-moving market, they must work with local requirements and regulations to succeed. Local authorities are one of the most important partners and powerful gatekeepers as well, as they are responsible for the inner-city infrastructure and create the framework conditions for private mobility operators. In addition, mobility habits and needs of the population must be kept in mind. Only services fitting the local mobility culture will be successful in the long run. To leverage all its advantages, shared micromobility must be part of a holistic mobility environment that needs to be orchestrated. Public authorities are increasingly aware of their coordinating role for the shared mobility ecosystem, and of how they exert influence through targeted measures. The days when any number of operators could launch their offerings are over. And even some of the biggest open micromobility hubs like Paris are moving towards more regulation.
Many cities invented pilot programs for shared micromobility to evaluate the impacts of this new mode of transportation on the local mobility mix. Apart from understanding the dynamics of shared micromobility and what is needed for its successful implementation, pilot programs are used to educate citizens and monitor their user behavior. Once cities are convinced of the added value of a sharing service, it is important to establish rules for its operation. Next logical steps are therefore licensing and tendering. To obtain a license for a micromobility service, it is now common to participate in public tenders. Providers need to apply for a license and are selected at the end of a comprehensive selection process. The prospect of license renewal is an important incentive for operators to play by the licensor’s rules.
Right from the start, operators therefore rely on a proactive and constructive exchange with cities. It is crucial to deal with local characteristics of a city and different mobility cultures, to make a service proposal that is tailored to the city. The Memorandum of Understanding by the Association of German Cities and German Association of Towns and Municipalities highlights some of the core areas where cooperation between a municipality and provider is needed:
- Determine demand and business area
- Set parking and no-riding zones
- Discuss the relationship with public transport
- Arrange data sharing standards
- Create standards for redistribution, maintenance, and vehicle disposal
- Select contact partners and communication protocols
- Organize channels for citizen communication
Sharing operators have recognized that working in close partnership with cities is the foundation of their success. Expansions into new cities and countries are planned more carefully and in closer communication with local authorities. In addition, it may be possible that operators offer additional services to meet their public partners’ interests, like sharing trip data for enhanced traffic planning or equipping vehicles with specific sensors to measure the air quality in urban areas. Operators who have a powerful tech stack that enables them to react flexibly to the wishes and requirements of cities have a distinct advantage here.
However, while a more comprehensive intervention of cities in the mobility market is reasonable, it must not become a brake on growth for innovative mobility solutions. Overregulation or even substitution of private players by public mobility services would reduce the diversity of offerings in the long term. As widespread availability of sustainable transport solutions is necessary to achieve climate targets, public authorities should see the diversity of private shared mobility providers as an opportunity to further develop their cities. To better represent their own ideas and interests to these policymakers, sharing operators started forming strategic alliances and interest groups like the Plattform Shared Mobility in Germany. Since mobility must be thought of holistically, partners at all levels must work together. One of the best examples of the transformative power of collaborative efforts is the wide variety of activities and projects that took place during the pandemic that could act as a booster for shared micromobility.
Effective collaboration during the pandemic
Given the extent and widespread external effects of the COVID 19 crisis on urban and global goods movement and urban mobility, we are starting to see opportunities to address the near-term public health challenges and ensure a more environmentally sustainable future. In specific settings where countries, regions, and even cities have “flattened the curve” and are now passing the peak, there are specific examples of urban design that are looking to prevent a return to widespread single car usage, lure passengers back to public transport, and encourage forms of active transportation (walking, bicycling).
Germany, which began widespread testing and preemptive stay at home orders, has been seen as one of the global models for stabilizing the pandemic and ensuring a methodical return to normal economic activity. In the case of the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, pop-up bike lanes were introduced as a creative solution to ensuing social distancing and preventing an increase in single car usage. The pop-up lanes included the temporary widening of two cycle lanes, which will help cyclists keep the required 1.5-meter distance apart while car traffic was down due to Germany’s coronavirus restrictions.
In taking a more collaborative approach to integrating shared mobility options (as has been successfully done across multiple European cities), the long-term sustainability of such offers can be ensured, ultimately benefiting all stakeholders in the mobility ecosystem. All stakeholders win when mutual partnerships are formed and cultivated between the public and private sector in shared mobility. We simply need to do a much better job of scrutinizing the business models and KPIs of startups and mobility ventures to better assess their viability in the urban ecosystem. We will see ever more “exits” in the sector, either through M&A, “market pivots”, or complete business shutdowns if we do not work together. If all stakeholders collaborate well, everyone benefits.