Guest Op-Ed: Micromobility Can Get America Moving Again
The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has placed U.S. transit agencies in the difficult position of urging passengers not to use their services, and plummeting ridership has resulted in urgent calls for a transportation stimulus. As Congress considers legislation to get the nation moving again after the COVID-19 crisis, it should consider how micromobility could accelerate our economic recovery while America’s planes, trains, and automobiles get back up to speed.
Although still an emerging option in many urban centers, electric micromobility—shared, lightweight, electrified transportation such as e-scooters and e-mopeds—is quickly becoming an integral part of the urban transportation mix with 84 million rides taken in 2018 alone. It has become so widely-used in some parts of the country that cities have deemed it an essential service during this outbreak.
As a non-enclosed form of transportation for individuals, which is consequently less prone to transmitting the novel coronavirus, micromobility is also proving useful in these trying times. E-moped company Revel, for example, is offering free rides for healthcare workers to ensure medical professionals can get to and from work, minimizing the threat of infection through other transportation options such as public transit. Lime has also launched LimeAid, a similar scheme that gives free rides for medical staff.
The transit sector has suffered from this crisis, not just in falling ridership but also in increasing costs and decreasing revenues. In its request to Congress for $16 billion in emergency funding for transit agencies, the American Public Transportation Association estimates $1.75 billion alone will be needed just to clean vehicles and facilities.
Unfortunately, the effects of the coronavirus are also being felt by the micromobility industry. To encourage social distancing, Lime and others have pulled their e-scooters from city streets. In addition, as many of the parts come from China, supply chain disruptions are already a cause for concern in the industry.
For a nascent industry like micromobility, which is barely three years old, this could prove fatal.
Alongside the coronavirus, the current oil market volatility exacerbated by a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia shows that micromobility can decouple a large portion of urban trips away from the unpredictable oil market toward a stable, electric alternative. Almost 60 percent of vehicle trips taken are less than six miles, and car trips of less than one mile add up to 10 billion miles per year. Micromobility can help accelerate the switching of these trips to electricity: A fuel not dependent on the vagaries of the oil markets and without the emissions of petroleum fuels.
Moreover, the benefits of widespread micromobility use are already being noticed. A survey of 75,000 scooter riders in Portland, Oregon, found 34 percent would have otherwise used a car, taxi, or ride-hailing service in place of their last electric scooter trip. In addition, the survey showed that 6 percent of scooter riders reported reducing the number of cars in their household because of the availability of electric scooters, and another 16 percent have considered it.
Whether as a last-mile option or as a substitute for a short car commute, micromobility has become a vital supplement to public transit and a tool for easing congestion. Losing such a readily-scalable option, driven by private sector innovation and less prone to infection, would represent a net loss for consumers and cities.
As a result, urban centers would benefit if micromobility was included in federal transportation stimulus packages. With less infrastructure, almost no facilities, and smaller vehicles, micromobility could be up and running quicker than any other public transportation option—and can lead the way in getting America moving again.
The views expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.