3 Ways Cities Can Leverage Micromobility Services for Good
More cities are leveraging disruptive mobility technologies in their existing transportation networks to work toward policy goals that foster equitable, sustainable and safe mobility for all. Photo by Caroline Hjelm/Unsplash

Cities are redefining their relationship with transport and it’s some of the smallest vehicles that are leading the way. Shared bike services, e-bikes, scooters and mopeds, together known as micromobility, are proliferating in the urban landscape. Recent changes in mobility patterns due to COVID-19 may accelerate this change. Indeed, even as public transportation ridership has declined as much as 90% in some cities during the pandemic, many places have seen the highest micromobility ridership on record.

In this environment of rapid change, cities are looking to each other to understand how to safely, efficiently and equitably integrate these new services into their complex physical and regulatory environments. What policies make progress toward key goals in access, sustainability and safety, and which do not? For example, a cap on bike fleet size that works in Santa Monica may not be effective in Mexico City.

The Micromobility Policy Atlas, a new resource developed by NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, WRI and the Shared-Use Mobility Center, tracks policies and regulatory frameworks related to micromobility around the world and provides valuable insights into the evolving relationship between cities and operators. The Policy Atlas currently covers more than 100 unique micromobility policies in 25 countries and will receive regular updates.

By serving as a database of current regulatory practices, the Policy Atlas underscores trends in governing micromobility vehicles and services. Studying these trends, including the three highlighted below, helps us see how cities are leveraging disruptive mobility technologies to work toward municipal goals.

1. Cities are steering more equitable distribution of micromobility services through equity mandates and incentives.

Micromobility can play a key role in improving access to essential opportunities, goods and services like jobs, health care and groceries, especially when integrated deliberately and as a complementary element to existing transportation systems. But this benefit isn’t always felt equally, particularly by communities of color and low-income communities, which have often been underserved by safe, reliable and affordable transportation services – including new micromobility services.

The Policy Atlas shows how some cities, particularly in North America and Latin America, have begun to incorporate a variety of equity mandates into their micromobility regulations while incentivizing operators to expand services to users in vulnerable communities. Seattle’s Free-Floating Bike Share program, for example, requires service providers to plan how they will ensure services are equitably operated and marketed. This policy includes provisions for non-smartphone access, reduced fares and translation of rider education materials into languages other than English. The regulation specifies that service providers must maintain at least 10% of their units across designated “equity focus areas,” or neighborhoods that saw below average bike access during Seattle’s first bike-share pilot program. Operators that do not comply face a reduction in maximum fleet size.

In Zapopan, Mexico, operators are required to maintain an even distribution of vehicles throughout the operating zone and are encouraged to incorporate payment methods other than bank cards for unbanked users, and for users without mobile data plans. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, at least 30% of each operator’s scooter fleet must be distributed in designated “areas of concentrated poverty,” and no more than 40% of the fleet may be placed downtown or in surrounding wealthier neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, the Department of Transportation takes an incentive-based approach to achieving equity goals, raising fleet caps and significantly reducing fees for micromobility service providers that commit to operate in historically underserved communities.

2. Cities are increasingly managing micromobility growth by supporting dedicated safety infrastructure.

All but a few cities lack widespread networks of dedicated safety infrastructure for micromobility, like separate lanes and parking areas from car traffic, reflecting decades of urban development that has prioritized cars over all other users of the public way. Even though some cities are starting to turn the tide and build out dedicated active mobility networks, the low supply of safe infrastructure often makes using micromobility uncomfortable, if not dangerous or even deadly for users. At the same time, the wild popularity of micromobility is expanding the demand for space in connected corridors where people can safely ride and scoot over longer distances. A 2019 survey by scooter-share provider Bird found strong user demand for increased investment and installation of wider, safer, small-vehicle lanes to reduce crash risk for riders.

As micromobility continues to integrate itself into the urban transportation landscape, planners and decision-makers must rethink street designs to be truly multimodal and safe for a fast-growing base of riders. Cities must also clearly recognize their own role within the spectrum of shared public- and private-sector responsibilities to foster safe services and support safe, inclusive infrastructure.

Many cities are supporting regulation to advance the development of dedicated safety infrastructure. The Policy Atlas suggests that cities in Asia are leading the way in terms of regulations that directly put responsibilities on public sector entities for micromobility infrastructure. Beijing incorporates both government and corporate responsibilities into shared mobility regulations, including shared development of infrastructure, allocation of public resources, and addressing residents’ mobility needs. District governments develop biking and parking infrastructure near public places like transportation hubs, hospitals and residential areas, while municipal departments create citywide plans to guide infrastructure construction and underwrite construction management loans. The regulatory approaches in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lanzhou and several other Chinese cities also lay out public responsibilities in the expansion of the transportation system.

A number of cities specifically dedicate micromobility fees to small-vehicle lanes, bike/scooter parking and other infrastructure. Rio de Janeiro assigns revenues from scooter permit fees, advertising and fines to a Municipal Fund for Urban Mobility that supports infrastructure planning and improvements. Guadalajara, Mexico, dedicates the fee paid by companies to operate in each municipality to funding development of cycling infrastructure. And in Calgary, Canada, companies pay a one-time $10 fee per vehicle called the “bicycle parking improvement fee,” which is allocated to the construction and maintenance of parking facilities.

3. Cities are experimenting with fleet caps to manage use of public space and reduce vehicle waste.

Many cities have faced a flood of free-floating micromobility devices being deployed by private companies onto their streets and sidewalks, sometimes crowding the public right-of-way.

Improperly parked vehicles can pose hazards to sidewalk users, particularly people with disabilities. In San Diego, California, a disability rights group sued the city, claiming that scooter obstruction of the sidewalk forced them to choose between risking their physical safety or not traveling at all.

Micromobility service operators share a responsibility with cities and their own users to protect everyone’s unobstructed access to public space. While some of the excesses of the early dockless micromobility era have been reined in through companies’ own efforts and the market’s evolution, managing the impact of thousands of new vehicles suddenly appearing in a constrained public way has remained a central focus of municipal regulatory efforts.

Fleet caps are a common response. This policy was among the most frequently used mechanisms identified in the initial cohort of policies surveyed by the Policy Atlas. Fleet caps limit the total number of vehicles allowed in a jurisdiction and tend to also include limits on the number of vehicles in a given operator’s fleet. Ideally, fleet caps help ensure fair competition among companies, good utilization levels for vehicles and reduced clutter in the public right-of-way.

But fleet caps don’t always function as intended. When they’re inflexible or improperly sized, the supply of vehicles may not meet the demand for these services, limiting their usefulness as an effective and reliable solution for short trips and “last-mile” connections to public transportation. That lack of reliability can deter users from using micromobility to make essential trips, potentially funneling those riders into higher-emitting, space-inefficient modes like ride-hailing or personal cars.

Analyzing the data collected, we see that some cities have moved to new, more dynamic metrics over fleet caps, such as utilization rates per vehicle, which implicitly take into account the demand for these services. Minneapolis, for example, set an initial jurisdiction-wide fleet cap of 2,500 scooters in 2020, but it can be adjusted during the course of the program based on various factors including demand, safety incidents and resident feedback.

Building on Emerging Regulation

Bolstered by the disruptive dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic which seem to have further cemented the role of micromobility in urban transport, these new services are meeting a need for a convenient, affordable and direct way to take short- to medium-length trips. Cities have an opportunity to increase access to goods and services for residents and businesses by thoughtfully and deliberately integrating these services into their existing transportation network and evaluating the results against policy goals that foster equitable, sustainable and safe mobility for all.

Ken Wakabayashi is a Research Analyst for several projects, including the Air Quality team and NUMO, at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Colin Murphy is Research and Consulting Director at the Shared-Use Mobility Center.

Acoyani Adame is an Active Mobility Analyst for WRI México.

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