Micromobility is everywhere.

Over the last three years, bicycles have gone completely mainstream and scooters have burst onto the scene. It’s truly an exciting time for those who care about transportation, cities and innovation. However, I’ve noticed a concerning trend: some, perhaps enthralled by rapid influx of venture cash and runaway speculation, have forgotten the entire point of it all.

An article published in Forbes last month epitomizes the reasons for my concern.

Entitled, Bicycling Take a Hike: The Micromobility Revolution Will Be Motorized, the piece describes contemplates the true definition of micromobility, and what it means for the future. The author spends most of his time with Horace Dediu, a tech industry analyst, who opines on both the meaning of the term, and its implications for the future.

It’s an interesting article that’s certainly worthy of a read for anyone interested in transportation, but the gist can be found within the three passages below:

But, posits Dediu, if micromobility continues to be roofless it may eventually whither and die in those cities which experience extremes in weather:

“Historically consumers have shown a preference for more comfort and less effort in transportation … [so] why would consumers adopt what appears to be less comfortable and requiring more effort?” asks Dediu in his FAQ reach-out.

“Human-Powered Vehicles will be as obsolete and as rare as black-and-white televisions or monochrome cell phones,” he predicts.

Micromobility, for Dediu, is “personal transportation using any vehicles whose gross weight is less than 500 kg.”

And that includes automobiles, if they can be made light enough.

Most of the vehicles he expects to be used in the dense, overcrowded cities of the near future will weigh less than 100 kg. Think e-scooters, powered skateboards, and e-bikes – a future of Skips, Spins and Jumps.

In his definition, Horace Didiu, the expert cited as evidence for the emerging industry consensus, focuses primarily on weight; smaller more efficient vehicles are going to dominate the cities of the future. Didiu’s sentiments are not isolated; I’ve heard many contextualize scooters as primarily an efficient means of transportation; moreso than vehicles.

These definitions reveal Didiu’s background in tech, and not in cities, as they miss a key component: public space. 

In addition to the obvious transportation benefits, cities have embraced bicycles because these small pedal powered vehicles complimented the pedestrian focused streetscapes that emerged as a key focal point in post-2000 urban planning.

As the next generation of planners thought about how to enliven neighborhoods, a new planning orthodoxy emerged; cities should be walkable and streets should be for people. This rejoinder has actually become a rallying cry for the new urbanist planning approach.

Cities from New York to Los Angeles sought to embrace a decidedly European style for their city centers, with fewer cars, smaller roadways and more people. Domestically, neighborhoods like New York’s SoHo became the aspirational model; mixed use, dense, high amounts of foot traffic. Even Los Angeles began to cast away car centric planning models in favor of a dense, more walkable Downtown.

For municipal DOT’s, this meant embracing mass transit, narrowing streets, and even outright banning cars.

A pedestrian seating area on New York’s Broadway typifies the ways in which cities have tried to reduce car traffic in urban areas.

Bicycles were an obvious part of this vision. Amsterdam, the default aspirational city for many planners, is jammed with bicycles– and for good reason.

Bicycles are spatially efficient, equitable, carbon neutral and healthy. Their riders aren’t locked away inside metal, they’re out in the open. Most importantly, bicycles have a general speed limit of about 15 mph. Yes, while it’s possible for cyclists to exceed this, the amount of physical labor required to achieve higher speeds is a natural governing force.

It’s no coincidence that the bicycle revolution was paired with the pedestrian revolution.

Here in New York, the Bloomberg administration oversaw the introduction of more than 700 miles of bicycle lanes, bicycle share AND the creation of the public plaza program, which included banning cars from Times Square and dozens of other neighborhoods. This was part of a cohesive strategy, the reimagining of the urban streetscape.

Union Square.png
The public space in New York’s Union Square typifies the dense, walkable communities that new urbanists desire

The advocacy community has also recognized this; Transportation Alternatives, New York’s largest bicycle advocacy group, is also its largest pedestrian advocacy group. It’s a natural alliance born from a shared vision for the streetscape.

My friends in the micromobility industry do not seem to fully understand this crucial fact.

The most glaring friction points between micromobility firms like Bird and Lime have centered on the public space experience; some of the more common complaints include scooters being used on sidewalks and cluttering sidewalks, plazas and parks.

This has led cities to introduce onerous restrictions on micromobility service providers, or outright bans.

Given this context, any definition of micromobility must acknowledge the relationship between the public sector, with its vision for public space, and the small vehicle.

Yes, speed matters. Cities do not want missiles darting down their streets, even if they’re in bicycle lanes. No, a motorcycle is not micromobility, even if it weighs just 100 lbs.

Yes, size matters, but so does form. An enclosed golf cart traveling at 25 mph is not going have the same appeal as a bicycle or scooter.

Yes, reducing car traffic is important. No, that does not mean that cities want bicycles and scooters left haphazardly in the park or on the sidewalk.

The dense communities of Amsterdam are filled with bicycles– these have been the inspiration for many American planners

In developing Oonee, we were initially focused on the user experience for cyclists (and later on for scooters). But that changed quickly after our first round of soft pitches to property owners; they’d always ask us how it looked, and then how it would interact with the public space.

We realized that the vast majority of interactions that would take place with our solution would not be from the vantage point of the cyclists, but from the pedestrian. Sure, 200 people might use an Oonee station each day, but 15,000 pedestrians might walk by or otherwise engage.

What would be their experience?

We realized that pedestrians were their own class of user, just like the cyclist.

As fixed asset infrastructure, Oonee is obviously different from companies that operate bikes and scooter, but as different as you would think. The experience of the pedestrian and the impact on the streetscape are a fundamental component of the equation.

I can only hope the industry can see this too.

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