Micro-mobility kicks on as cities start to choke

Freddie Holmes speaks to INVERS, one of the largest technology players in the micro-mobility space that is supporting the rapid growth of shared cars, electric mopeds and scooters around the world

Spiralling traffic congestion amid continued urbanisation is set to be a boon for micro-mobility services, with transport at the tap of a button expected to erode the appeal of owning a car.

Micro-mobility joins a growing collection of industry sub-trends, sitting alongside common terms such as ‘shared’, ‘on-demand’ and ‘free-floating.’ Less common, however, are the mediums in which micro-mobility is serving consumers. Kick scooters with small electric motors, for example, have become a core product for ‘last mile’ micro-mobility services, as have pedal-assisted bicycles and electric ‘battery swap’ mopeds. Passenger cars also hold a significant portion of the market, with car-share providers serving slightly longer extra-urban journeys that exceed five miles.

The automotive industry has not sat idly, with Ford’s acquisition of e-scooter start-up Spin taking the headlines back in November 2018. More recently in February, an already significant partnership between BMW and Daimler became a full-blown merger as the pair consolidated a raft of mobility verticals. In March, Volvo Cars invested in Züm, a Californian start-up that has developed a ride-share service for school children. Many other investments have indicated that, for the world’s automakers, micro-mobility is no small fry.

Indeed, it is a far cry from the automotive industry’s typical movements, but an indication that mobility is about more than just the automobile. Not everyone can afford to run a private vehicle, nor are all citizens physically able. Those too young to obtain a driving license often rely on others. Even for those that can drive, increasingly congested city streets are pushing the definition of ‘rush hour’ to new extremes. According to the 2018 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, drivers in Bogota, Colombia, spent 272 hours sitting in traffic that year—more than 11 days. The issue prevails even in developed markets—Londoners lost 227 hours to traffic congestion in 2018; 164 hours for Boston drivers and 237 hours for those in Paris.

Helping start-ups, start up

In order to tackle the traffic, super light electric vehicles are being deployed across the world’s major cities, with Europe, China and North America leading the way. Micro-mobility solutions must be convenient, suitable for short trips, easy to dock and accessible to many. Some industry definitions suggest that a micro-mobility solution must weigh less than 500kg—an electric scooter is around 12 to 15kg, and a moped 200kg at most. Shared and often free-floating, a ride can be reserved and unlocked through a smartphone app.

All of these services require an underlying platform from which to operate, however, and this is where players such as INVERS come in. Headquartered in Germany, the company provides a complete technology solution for more than 200 shared mobility operators around the world. It handles everything from the end-user mobile app and supporting telematics to the booking engine on the backend. “We are hidden in the background,” explained Johannes Gruenenberg, Sales & Business Development Manager (NA & Oceania) at INVERS. “The consumer would never see the INVERS logo, but our package is used by most of the main players in scooter-, moped- and car-sharing around the world to ensure they provide a reliable service.”

But why would a company use INVERS rather than developing its own solution in-house? For mobility providers, the decision hinges on either building a platform from scratch or leveraging an existing service. Oftentimes, the latter is more affordable and reliable. There is also the need for speed; new start-ups are launching in this space every week, and delayed deployment could lead to missed opportunities. “For the mobility service operator, the most important consideration is time to market,” said Gruenenberg. Once the shared service is up and running, the operator is then free to focus on improving its core business. “You cannot delay for several months simply because you do not have the technology available,” he continued. “Our platform means operators can start immediately, and think about ways to differentiate their service from the competition.”

Positive prospects

The million-dollar question has long been whether shared-mobility services of any kind can lure drivers away from private vehicle ownership. Invers has been in the mobility space for the last 25 years, and has found that even early car-sharing services were a viable replacement for many drivers. The benefits for cities also became clear: for every 30 to 50 users served by a car-share programme, around ten to 15 cars are taken off the road.

In 2008, INVERS was involved in a free-floating project with what was then Daimler’s car2go service. With vehicles accessed via a smartphone and no longer confined to specific drop-off and pick-up points, this indicated the next direction for shared mobility. “Even years ago, this proved there was the potential for consumers to rely on shared mobility services instead of owning a car,” said Gruenenberg. “It also led to an increase in membership for car-sharing, and other forms of transport—bikes, scooters, mopeds—that support the question of whether people need to own a car.”

The jump from owning a car to sharing a car is fairly straightforward, and for the user, little will change. Cutting out the car altogether and moving from four wheels to two would seem more of a step-change, but figures suggest that many trips can be comfortably served by micro-mobility. “In the US, 60% of all trips are between one and five miles, and e-scooters or pedal-assisted bikes cater well to this range,” said Gruenenberg. “The average e-scooter trip is around 1.5 miles, and in Europe, the average moped journey is three miles. There is a gap that shows while certain aspects can be covered by micro-mobility today, additional solutions may be required in future.”

Change required

Infrastructure, too, may need to adapt. While existing cycle lanes can be shared by e-scooters and pedal-assisted bicycles, the increase in volume could lead to dangerous and overly congested roads. New roads and regulations may need to be introduced at some point, and Gruenenberg highlighted how municipalities will play a pivotal role in fostering a safe and efficient micro-mobility ecosystem.

“Cities have to regulate these services to some extent—we don’t want a bike-sharing dumpster,” he said. Permits for a defined number of vehicles per operator may be needed, for example, to avoid overcrowding. In the US, many e-scooters were initially banned by cities following rogue introductions without formal approval from local authorities. Boston, Nashville and San Francisco in particular have all taken a hard stance on dockless e-scooters to date.

“Certain infrastructure is also required in the first place to cater for micro-mobility—parking, for example,” continued Gruenenberg. “This is the primary necessity to make these light electric vehicles more attractive.” In Vancouver, for example, a handful of roads are being reallocated as bicycle lanes, with car parking spots being removed in the process. Amsterdam is also a beacon for the micro-mobility movement, with cyclists very much afforded priority status on roads. “It is so attractive to ride a bicycle because of all the bike lanes,” noted Gruenenberg. “Bikes are at the top of the mobility chain, and it shows that cities have to be involved in this discussion to issue new permits and rethink parking.”

Certain trends have become apparent in the micro-mobility space. Major US cities have taken to e-scooters like a duck to water, but the market is yet to see significant demand for larger ride-on mopeds, which are already well established in Europe. Conversely, e-scooters have taken longer to find their feet in European cities. As such, Gruenenberg sees significant potential to tap into these gaps. “Within a year, scooter services in the US skyrocketed, but there remains a large black spot in the North American market for moped sharing,” he explained. “Micro-mobility is a very interesting and fast moving market, which is definitely fostering change in the wider mobility world.”