The impact of COVID-19 could be felt far and wide, in every nook and corner, and no one has been spared. It has disrupted everyday life and every level of the transportation sector. Millions of people had to cancel their future travel plans, and even had to forgo local outings as the world stopped moving. As states and cities are beginning to reopen, people are looking for alternative transportation modes in order to avoid the crowd and travel safely with minimum exposure. But, maybe the pandemic might not be as bad as we imagine it to be. Maybe, this might prove to be a favorable time for the micro mobility domain. For those of you who are out and about again, you would have definitely seen those electric bikes and scooters in your neighborhood, zipping past you. Admit it, the transport sector that will not have to wait for a vaccine is micro mobility.
So, What is Micro Mobility?
Micro Mobility encompasses a range of small, lightweight, low-speed vehicles ranging from standard bicycles to electric scooters and mopeds; essentially what is being referred to is a vehicle without an internal combustion engine. Micro Mobility devices can be privately-owned or available through a shared fleet. The micro mobility sector has existed for some time now with the introduction of bikesharing services decades ago, but only in recent years has it started to take off.
Initially, electric scooter fleet Bird was arguably the fastest to reach ‘unicorn status’ (startups valued at $1 billion or more), catapulting the sector into mainstream media. Many other global and regional players have emerged since in the e-scooter sharing space such as: Lime, Circ, and Tier.
A few months ago, we saw some of the micromobility startups closing down due to the stay-at-home orders, and a decreasing demand. With reduced ridership and the struggle to compensate for massive short-term loss in profits, these services had a hard time adjusting to the ‘new normal’ the pandemic left behind.. Leading to the question if this industry is sustainable and if it would exist in the future. These monopolies left many customers uneasy and wondering if they’ll be left stranded with little warning. Viral internet stories such as Uber’s recent decision to offload its financially draining Jump Bikes program onto Lime, and scrap thousands of perfectly good e-bikes in the process, has been viewed as an ominous sign making many question if it’s the beginning of the scooter and bike-share industry’s demise.
While the micromobility industry had been facing devastating declines in ridership and revenue during this pandemic as a whole, some might argue that micromobility is in the midst of a major comeback. Companies are trying to adapt to the crisis and are adding or expanding delivery services for items such as food, medical supplies and groceries using their e-scooters and bikes. Let’s have a look at New York City for instance; Citi Bike expanded their service during the pandemic into the Bronx because essential workers needed an alternative mode of transport to get to their workplaces. Similarly, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., also has plans to expand. These companies never closed during the pandemic, and instead saw a rise in demand for their bikes and scooters. Recently, we have also seen more and more companies come up like the Ride Panda and micro mobility provider Gotcha, testifying the fact that there is actually some hope for this sector and that the future prospects are looking good.
Promising results have also been shown in a recent survey conducted by Oliver Wyman, in over eight nations with approximately 6,000 respondents, where 44% of riders said they would be willing to increase their dependence on the service in the future and another 34% said they planned to use it as frequently as they were before the pandemic. It seems from these data that with an evolving technology and shifting societal expectations, a future of micro mobility that is sustainable and convenient, is definitely more likely than before, even if the precise timing and nature of that transformation remains uncertain.
There are still many questions regarding the future of sustainable transportation, hugely impacted by COVID-19. It is unclear if there will be a necessary shift in usage needed from leisure to utility, and if it will become a normalized daily practice or remain as an infrequent novelty. If properly executed, micromobility could be the answer for many Americans still concerned about their safety when using public transportation during the pandemic. It continues to have the potential to be a critical resource for many US communities still looking for commuting solutions. Despite the reports of micromobility companies biting the dust, it’s left space in the market for those that survived to really thrive, paving the way to a bright future for the micromobility industry. Until more Americans feel safe getting back to the usual mode of transportation, shared transit micromobility might be the preferred option. But for now, they have to deal with these short term losses and work on increasing ridership.
Will more commuters get on board in the future? Only time will tell.