In Abeyance Logo

Issue 013 Cover

013 / Micromobility

Published October 2019

Introduction

We were not early adopters, given the chance I want to believe that we would have been. As it turns out we were a few years early for the coming revolution.

Moving to a new city allows you to reinvent parts of yourself. A city offers different ways for it’s residents to interact with it. Following several years of living in cities that relied almost exclusively on cars, Dubai was a city that offered some public transport. In my excitement I decided to try my hand for a few months to live and use these facilities. It didn’t last. As the summer months began to set it, the 25min walk to and from the metro station was too much in rising heat and humidity. At the time I lamented that all I needed was a small electric vehicle between these two spaces. Jeremy (birds of a feather flock together) had the same idea. He solved it with a Jeremy-powered scooter - something I remember my wife mocking me for even considering. While it looked more adult than what my 2 year old was using at the time, truth is, it didn’t inspire. Fast forward a couple of years later and we’d both given into the car as the only mode of transport.

It wasn’t too long after we began to see them appearing on the pavements. The electric scooters. These things were fast. Very fast. In fact, it seemed wrong that these vehicles were sharing the same pavement with the walkers. As quickly as they had appeared on the streets of Dubai (and Abu Dhabi), they swiftly disappeared. Legislation. City authorities needed to understand what was going on here. How would these vehicles integrate? What rules should they abide by? Was this something important to keep an eye on and control? The scooters made their comeback to the cities. You know an idea is strong when it comes back after any setback. It’s worth the effort, hassle and maybe even some ridicule. This wasn’t a passing fad. There was something much more at play here.

Defining Micromobility

Our transportation needs drive our cities and a majority of what we see in the built environment. Roads, parking, stations (bus, train or tram), pavements. Solving transport challenges define the form our cities will take. This in turn will have it’s own impact on our overall environment. To enable us to become more sustainable we need to reduce our overall footprints (be it carbon or otherwise). As our cities grow and the number of people living within them increase, we need to address the needs in different ways. Smaller ways. Micro ways.

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farm … As people started moving away from the farm, the car started taking over. PCs are still going to be around. One out of x people will need them. The transformation will make us uneasy because the PC has taken us a long way … We like to talk about post-PC era but when it really starts to happen it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people.
— Steve Jobs, after the unveiling of the iPad in 2010.

10 years on, we now recognise that in computing, you don’t need to use a desktop PC, for tasks that an tablet might be more suited for. You don’t need to use a table when a phone will do the job easier and faster. We can now apply the exact same thinking when considering the car itself. You don’t need a car to carry out all your trips. In fact the convenience a car affords is now turning into a hinderance when one considers traffic. Micromobility is to the car, what the iPad (and phone and watch) is to the PC.

Micromobility, as defined by Horace Dediu, is a mode of transportation enabled by very light vehicles with a primary condition that the total weight of the vehicle is less than 500kg. The definition does not define the range, type of motor or number of wheels. The limitation on the weight aims to exclude cars, which don’t exist below the 750kg range.

What this definition allows for is a wide range of vehicles to exist. The current crop of vehicles offer different ranges in a number of form factors. Vehicles such as the Segway MiniLite caters to the lower end of the spectrum, while The Microlino1, with it’s distinct BMW Isetta stylings, exists at the very top end. This is only the very beginning in a field that has barely been explored. We still need more creative solutions that better cater for varying needs. Vehicles that address adverse weather. The needs of small children, the elderly. Transporting large items and everything in between.2

Description Weight (kg) Range (km) Speed (km/h) Number of Wheels
Segway MiniLite 12 18 16 2
Segway Ninebot KickScooter MAX G30 18 65 25 2
Segway Ninebot Z10 24 90 45 1
Christiania Cargo Bike (with eDrive500) 41 69-160 25 3
Vespa Elettrica 102 100 45 2
Toyota iRoad 300 50 45 3
Microlino 513 250 90 4

Disruption

We define technological disruption as a new technology that enables a new business model. A model that caters to a smaller segment that is not catered to by an incumbent. Seen as too small for the incumbent, they won’t engage with it. Through rapid iteration, the new technology will evolve and overcome the initial limitations. Micromobility has all the necessary hallmarks to become a disruptive collection of technologies that will change how we move and interact with our cities.

On Public Transport. It’s important that we don’t consider micromobility as needing to shoulder the entire burden required to replace the car. Rather this technology can, and often will, work often in tandem with public transportation methods. We can attribute the fact that a car offers an anywhere to anywhere mode of transport as one of the reason for the car’s huge popularity. There is an inherent convenience. Public transport offers predefined points of transportation. You still need to get to the stations and away from the stations. Not everyone lives in close to these stations. Micromobility would provide methods to bridge this gap, the last mile.

Consistently, the size of traditional vehicles has increased multiple times over. In part, to accommodate the latest regulations. The slow iterative process adds a small number of features on a 5 year cycle and exist within a 30 year sales cycle. The automotive industry is a slow and lumbering beast. Looking to Tesla (and other electric cars) to solve our future transportation needs is missing the change bubbling at the fringes.

By contrast the micromobility industry is nimble. Operating at the very start of it’s life, it holds an appeal to the few early adopters. The industry continues to experiment on a much shorter timescale, 1-2 years or even shorter. Their environment may lends itself to their use, or as is likely the case their cities (in their current state) are likely downright hostile. Yet the persevere as the industry continues to expand at a rapid pace. China has embraced the electric bike at a rate that far exceeds the rest of the world, accounting for over 90% of all sales globally. More impressively, China now has as many e-bikes as cars on it’s roads, around 200 million.

Impact on the Built Environment

It’s easy to get lost and excited in the technology itself. The true excitement lies in the positive and transformative impact that the technology enables. Whether we walk, drive or take public transport, the journeys made throughout our day are an integral part of our lives. Similarly imagine all the trips that are not made because walking would take too long or require multiple stops or there is no parking. Micromobility has the opportunity to resolve and enhance our interactions with out cities and our lives.

Compact cities with high congestion lend themselves to a previously unimaginable transformation. In this new world, our existing infrastructure isn’t small and inadequate. Rather we built it for a now outdated model and have continued to use it incorrectly. The built environment is not just the buildings that sprout up. It is everything around you. The roads that connects, the traffic lights that regulate and the bridges that span. Imagine all this prime governmentally owned spaces that encircle every space, previously dedicated for cars (stationary or moving) to now sub-divided and utilized by a wide range of smaller, cleaner, noiseless vehicles. There is an opportunity to replicate the New York’s High Line on an unprecedented scale, across the world. For this to happen of course regulations will need to change. Our attitude to our transportation will need to change. It might be hard to imagine such a space could exist in your city. There will be mistakes made. The early adopters will cause their own problems or even put themselves at risk. Slowly however, as the numbers increase, cities will need to change their existing infrastructure to adapt. By making the spaces safe and inviting will only allow these modes of transport to flourish.

There will always be a need for cars, buses and trucks for certain kinds of trips and passengers. Their dominance will need to be curbed. This will be enabled from the bottom up, through micromobility. Governments will also seek to encourage (and control) this movement, so the squeeze will also happen from the top down.

Like coal factories, the combustion engine will eventually be phased out of city centers as we move to less polluting and sustainable methods of transport. In it’s place will come a fleet of vehicles with a more personal nature. This future can’t come soon enough.


  1. We can let the 13kg slide, for now, as long as future iterations move the weight down.

  2. One vehicle that aims to bridge these gaps is the Canoo EV bus. While it doesn’t fit the definition of micromobility (the vehicle weighs 2000kg), it does fit in thematically. Signaling how everything can (and should?) get smaller and moving away from an ownership model to a subscription model instead.