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Has Micromobility Finally Rebounded from Its COVID Downturn?

Electric scooters and bikes are fast becoming standard forms of transportation in the U.S. The post-pandemic resurgence is spurring those watching the space to call for new standards and thoughtful integration into urban transit.

A mobility hub in Millennium Park in Chicago in May 2022.
Skip Descant/Government Technology
As electric scooters and other forms of micromobility become more quotidian on city streets, those watching the space say the time has come for more standardization around their regulation and integration into the overall transportation ecosystem.

This call may be what is prompting researchers, transportation planners and other organizations to examine micromobility from a number of different angles — ranging from safety to the public policy needs — to more fully integrate bikes and scooters into the complex web that is urban transportation.

“E-scooters, like traditional and electric bikes, are an incredibly efficient form of travel from the perspective of roadway space requirements and energy efficiency,” said Laura Sandt, one of the authors of the recent report E-Scooter Safety: Issues and Solutions by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“Our study highlighted that despite potential conveniences and benefits, negative perceptions of e-scooter safety and comfort — particularly having to ride near faster-moving vehicles or share the sidewalk with pedestrians — are a barrier to some people to ride,” she added via email. “And riders who experience falls or injuries may also be less likely to continue riding in the future.”

The TRB report, in addition to another recently released study by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) helps to make the case for more dedicated infrastructure to serve users of micromobility, such as more attention to bike lanes, parking areas for bikes and scooters and an increased integration into the city transportation aided by data sharing.

“If we don’t make it safer for people to move around our cities, our neighborhoods, we can’t expect people, realistically, to get out of their cars and to become pedestrians, and to use public transit, and to use more integrated transportation modes, because quite frankly, it’s not safe,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, executive director of the Open Mobility Foundation and the former transit and mobility director in Seattle. Hastings' comments were made during a CoMotion LIVE panel discussion about micromobility safety in early November.

According to the TRB report, micromobility users have “consistently requested bicycle infrastructure to feel safe riding e-scooters in the street.” In fact, a survey of riders in Hoboken, N.J., found 88 percent of e-scooter users reported they would feel safer in streets if bike lanes were in place.

These findings come as shared micromobility has experienced a rapid expansion since rentable bikes and scooters first appeared on city streets going back to a bike-share operation launched in Montreal, Canada in 2009.

Shared micromobility operations reached 112 million trips in the United States in 2021, up from 65 million trips in 2020, following a high 136 million trips in 2019, according to Half A Billion Trips on Shared Micromobility Since 2010, the report by NACTO. The report, quantifying the maturity of shared micromobility transportation, found a strong bounce-back in ridership in 2021 following the widespread transportation shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Electric scooters and electric-assist bikes tend to be the preferred option among users, accounting for 62.5 million trips in 2021, with 39 percent of those trips occurring in only six cities: Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Denver; Los Angeles; San Diego, Calif.; and Washington, D.C., according to the NACTO report.

Anyone paying attention in 2020 will recall the explosion in bike sales. In 2020 and 2021 Americans spent some $15 billion on bikes and accessories, according to NACTO. A sizable portion of this investment was poured into e-bikes. Bike-share operations fairly quickly traded out traditional pedal bikes for electric-assist bikes. In 2018, e-bikes only accounted for 9.5 million trips. By 2021 they were providing 17 million trips.

Another notable trend was how trips on bikes and scooters changed during the pandemic.

Remote work reduced morning commute traffic on highways as well as transit lines. The same phenomenon was happening in micromobility. Another finding from the pandemic showed the cost of micromobility taking a sharp tick up, with prices for scooters and bikes nearly doubling since 2018, from an average of $3.50 to $7 in 2021, according to NACTO. Most of this increase has been targeted at the e-scooter and e-bike devices.

“COVID has definitely affected e-scooter ridership trends and the capacity for cities to expand their programs in ways that are not fully understood, and we are hoping to see more research emerge on these longer-term impacts,” said Sandt.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.