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Infrastructure, Regulation Stand Between Micromobility and Success

It will take a multi-pronged approach to guide micromobility operations toward a path of viability and profits in the United States, as they navigate a landscape marked by poor infrastructure and costly regulation.

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The future of micromobility in cities will hinge on whether the operations are profitable, sustainable and free from unnecessary regulatory burden. But, urban infrastructure — of lack thereof — will also be a significant factor for providers.

“The reality is just most markets, or many markets, will shut down if operators have to spend massive amounts of money working around a lack of infrastructure,” said Joseph Brennan, co-founder and CEO of Zoba, a technology firm working with micromobility companies toward fleet optimization.

“People do not ride on sidewalks very often in markets that have bike lanes,” he added, speaking on a December discussion about the future of micromobility. The panel was organized by Micromobility Industries, an advocacy group advancing the use of bikes, scooters and other forms of low-impact transportation.

Much of the discussion centered on e-scooters, which began showing up in U.S. cities in 2017. Last year, shared micromobility operations reached 112 million trips in the U.S., up from 65 million trips in 2020, following a high 136 million trips in 2019, according to research from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

In January 2020 — prior to the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — there were 205 e-scooter programs in the U.S., according to a safety report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. By August of that same year, the number had fallen to 146, as virus-related restrictions began to affect cities and travel.

Micromobility operations continue to explore ways to make the business model work, amid changing commuter patterns promoted by remote work, the regulatory landscape set by cities and the challenges around controlling operational costs.

“What we’ve seen here, especially in the U.S., which is a surprise coming from Europe, is the number of different, lets say, obligations that scooter operators have to comply with, which make operating a bit hard,” said Philip Reinckens, CEO of Spin, the No. 3 scooter and bike-share operator in the U.S.

At its core, the scooter business — and for that matter the bike-share business — is about getting people to ride the devices. In the most general terms, each bike or scooter in the fleet needs to be ridden about three times a day to get the business to pencil out, said Brennan. And to get the ridership, the vehicles need to be available when someone wants one.

Reinckens said for a city like Washington, D.C., there should be about 60 to 80 scooters per square kilometer (0.39 square mile). But to get this density of devices on the street, scooter companies must navigate through a city’s regulatory environment, which can be costly, say operators.

The U.S. market tends to be more “pay to play, where you have to pay an upfront amount to come into the city, or you pay a monthly fee based on a per-scooter level,” said Reinckens, making the point that this tends to be “counterintuitive,” given that if scooter operators are not profitable, they will not stick around and the city will not realize its larger goals around reducing car use.

Which makes the case for more innovation in the micromobility space, particularly when thinking of innovation and partnerships with other mobility providers like public transit.

“Modern technology gives us the rare opportunity to proactively rebuild the transit system based on what riders actually want and need rather than what transit agencies think their riders want and need,” Konstantin Spasov, vice president of business development at Modeshift, a transportation data analysis firm, told Government Technology. “As micromobility devices such as city bikes, e-bikes and electric scooters become increasingly popular in 2023 and expand into cities both large and small, it will be critical for transit agencies to integrate regional micromobility ridership data into their larger public transit ridership data sets.”

But aside from growing partnerships among micromobility and transit — with the aim of reducing friction from one mode to the next and making shared mobility more convenient — is the issue of infrastructure and how the U.S. lags behind when compared to other developed nations.

The TRB safety study found that 25 percent of e-scooter injuries in Washington, D.C., were the result of poor road surface conditions, and scooters are more susceptible to poor road conditions than bicycles.

“When infrastructure is really poor … the pie [of users] on any given day that is accessible to the operator is very small relative to more entrenched modes like ride-hailing and cars,” said Brennan, who lives in Boston and routinely uses the city’s bike-share program or his own e-scooter.

“Definitely, one of the most dangerous things I do, day to day, is ride either a Blue Bike or my personal scooter to the Zoba office, which is 20 minutes [away], and results in like a near death experience once a month,” he remarked.
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.