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Scooters, Other Forms of Micromobility Are Here to Stay

Operators of scooters and other rent-to-ride mobility devices are likely to have more substantive conversations with cities around issues like infrastructure, data analysis, sustainability and safety.

Charge operates SmartHubs where up to 72 scooters can be stored and charged.
Charge operates SmartHubs in a parking lot near the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles where up to 72 scooters can be stored and charged.
Electric scooters and bikes, which seemingly overnight became the shiniest new bauble in localized transportation, are not going away. Instead, 2020 is likely to be the year the concept matures and better integrates into the urban landscape.

Melinda Hanson certainly thinks so. Hanson is the head of sustainability at the micromobility purveyor Bird, which has scooters available for rent in many of the country's largest cities.

“I think what we saw in 2019 was proof that electric scooters are here to stay," Hanson said, "and it is something that is compelling, and enticing people out of cars at a rate that we’ve never before seen."

Hanson went on to predict a "leveling out of the industry," noting that the app-based rent-to-ride transportation device space is perhaps more difficult than many who entered the space thought it would be. What we have here is a concept that is proven incredibly popular among residents, yet still needs to be fully developed in terms of governance. As such, the future of micromobility this year is likely to involve substantive conversations with cities around issues like infrastructure, data analysis, sustainability and safety, say industry officials.

Quemuel Arroyo is the recent new global head of community at Charge, another company in the micromobility space. Arroyo also formerly served as the chief accessibility officer for the New York City Department of Transportation, and he said he has seen a shift in the conversation, going from asking if micromobility has a lasting potential to what can cities do to ensure its continued success?

Charge represents perhaps the newest cottage industry around micromobility, in that it provides charging and storage hubs for scooters. The company just opened a SmartHub in a parking lot near the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles where more than 70 e-scooters can be charged and stored at a time. Infrastructure like this allows for an easier and more sustainable logistical network where scooters have to be gathered, charged and redistributed.

Charge, Arroyo said, thinks of itself as a glimpse of the future, specifically as the gas station of the 21st century. While today they are only charging scooters, the plan is to soon add e-bikes and another micromobility device that starts to take hold in American cities. 

Reimagining the concept of parking lots could also be part of the future of urban transportation as planners and industry officials envision using parking spaces as spots for storing scooters, and also as staging areas for ride-hailing or even “cloud kitchens” — tiny kitchens preparing food for delivery-only service. As with micromobility, companies are starting to develop concepts around this parking lot repurposing idea. 

One such company is REEF Technology, which ranks as one of the largest operators of parking lots in the U.S., with roughly 5,000 locations. 

“Our company is all about, what are the different ways that you can leverage the proximity of a parking lot to serve the needs of all businesses, the cities, the consumers, that are in proximity,” said Alan Cohen, CMO for REEF Technology. Cohen shared his ideas for reimagining the parking lot at the recent CoMotion LA conference in downtown Los Angeles. Cohen noted three parking spaces could possibly accommodate as many as five tiny kitchens.

“All of a sudden you’ve reinvented parking to a higher value use,” said Cohen. 

The sharp rise in micromobility, which has served some 84 million trips in 2018, according to a report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, has not been without growing pains as cities have groused about devices left in the public-right-of-way impeding pedestrians and causing general street clutter. Researchers have also marked a rise in injuries associated with electric scooters. A report researched by the University of California San Francisco and published by the American Medical Association found the number of scooter-related injuries tripled from 2014 to 2018. Researchers admit that this sharp increase is due in part to the rapid rise in ridership in the last few years. And these injuries can at times be serious.

“I think the thing that stood out to us was that one in three people had a head injury," said Dr. Benjamin Breyer, one of the authors of the January 2020 report.

Nearly a third of the injuries were head-related, more than double the rate experienced by cyclists. It’s not known how many scooter riders — injured or otherwise — have worn helmets.

However, “the culture right now, people tend to not wear helmets on scooters, unlike cyclists who commute, and things like that,” said Breyer, who emphasized he’s “very pro micromobility,” and believes scooters are going to remain an active part of the transportation ecosystem.

Breyer, like other supporters of micromobility, stresses the importance of public officials improving infrastructure like protected bike lanes to create a safer transit space for micromobility users.

These conversations around infrastructure are expected to continue this year and in the years to come. Those working in the space certainly hope that is the case. Hanson from Bird, for example, attributed scooters strewn on sidewalks to the sidewalks not being wide enough for today’s modern transportation needs.

“One thing that I always say is, if the sidewalk is not wide enough for a scooter to be parked on it, then the sidewalk is not wide enough,” she added. “Every sidewalk, especially in our urban core, should be wide enough to have a furniture zone. And to have a clear path where the pedestrians, and wheelchair users, and anyone else can really pass and walk with enough room.”

While the exact nature of modernizing urban cores for evolving transportation needs is still being worked out, researchers in the space expect usership to continue rising.

A recent report by Deloitte predicts a sharp rise in the use of e-bikes around the world, growing 50 percent from 2019 to 2023. Electrification is expected to grow the use of sharable bikes. Of the more than 190 cities in the United States with bike-share programs, more than 40 of those now have electric bikes as part of the fleet, according to the Deloitte study.

The growth of electrification in the micromobility arena is likely to also grow the need for more charging solutions that are both creative and sustainable, said Arroyo.

“The micromobility infrastructure needs to be folded into the conversation of infrastructure, of city planning, dedicating space in the streetscape for these different modalities, which is a completely new conversation,” he added.

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.