Opinion | Honey I shrunk our car! Why micro-mobility could ride into India
In December 1962, Italian magazine La Domenica Del Corriere painted the first picture of micro-mobility in collective human imagination. They said, “Here’s how the problem of traffic in cities could be lightened, if not completely solved: tiny single-seater cars that occupy a small area.” In the last few years, micro-mobility has gained popularity the world over.
What is micro-mobility?
The definition is implicit in the term itself; while micro means small, mobility means conveyance. Horace Dediu, the industry analyst who coined the term, further contends that ‘micro-mobility is to mobility as micro-computing is to computing’. The first computer occupied 18,000 square feet. Today, the smallest computer measures 0.33 mm on each side. The diminishing size of computers resulted in their ubiquity. Our smartphones, tablets, and laptops are essentially micro-computers.
Similarly, micro-mobility holds the potential to transform mobility; to reduce ‘gigantism’ in transportation. Due to the infancy of the concept, there’s no fixed definition of micro-mobility yet. Should we define it based on the vehicular speed, wheel count, passenger occupancy, dimensions, wheel size, motor type or application in cities? In the absence of a concrete metric, it can be centered around the human as a unit. Current examples include, but are not limited to bicycles, motorbikes, and scooters, e-bikes, motorized skateboards, unicycles and other battery powered, low-speed vehicles such as small e-rickshaws.
Having understood what micro-mobility is, it is also important to understand what it isn’t. Micro-mobility is not motorised; it is human powered or electric. It is not the vehicle for side-walks; it’s not the vehicle for roads; it is a vehicle for ‘somewhere in the middle’, possibly bike lanes. Many Indian cities today have bicycle lanes that aren’t used adequately. As a result, they get encroached upon by garbage dumps and parked cars. The small vehicles are, thus, instruments for cities to reclaim their bike-lanes. Some may argue, “Bike lanes remain unused for a reason. Maybe us Indians and micro-mobility don’t go together.”
A few recent experiments suggest otherwise. Cities such as Pune, Aurangabad and Lucknow have delineated walking plazas for select areas. Cities like Bhopal, Delhi, Hyderabad and Gurugram observe Raahgiri Day where streets are reclaimed, i.e. streets that are otherwise reserved for vehicles become fully pedestrianised. Impact evaluation of Raahgiri, presented at the World Resource Institute, found that 28% of Raahgiri participants bought bicycles after partaking in the event and 81% of the participants started walking/cycling for shorter distances. It can be unequivocally said that micro-mobility benefits both the environment, economy and urban health. Raahgiri Day, for instance, led to a substantial reduction of pollution in Gurugram. (WRI, 2014).
At this point, it might be good to ask where in the mobility system does micro-mobility fit. One can speculate that it should be used as an independent mode to cover shorter distances and as a feeder to public transit for longer trip lengths. Micro-mobility could add to an enhanced commuter experience without adding to commuter carbon footprint. It could, in turn, also add to mobility system efficacy. Micro-mobility could enhance the uptake of public transit by catering to the last mile travel; reduce commute time by customizing routes and save road space.
Globally, investors feel optimistic about micro-mobility. The sentiment reflects in more than $5.7 billion investment in micro-mobility start-ups since 2015, 85% of which were aimed at China. Bird, for instance, raised $200 million from investors in 2017. The market has not only attracted investors but also a robust customer base. Within a year of operating in Southern California, Bird reached 10 million scooter rides; Lime hit 34 million rides. It is, therefore, no surprise that in just a few years micro-mobility start-ups have stockpiled a valuation exceeding $1 billion.
In India, micro-mobility companies including, but not limited to Lime, Bird, Mobycy, and Ecooltra have penetrated the market. A possible reason for success of micro-mobility businesses could be the ease of scaling associated with them. Due to the low cost of micro-vehicles, it isn’t difficult to ensure adequate presence of such vehicles in urban areas; Although globally successful, micro-mobility’s suitability for India should be carefully scrutinized.
Micro-mobility is inclusive and human in its truest sense — a variety of vehicles with varying degrees of riding difficulties and protective gears, make the idea suitable for everyone, not just for the fit and fearless. To that end, service providers should work towards enhancing passenger safety by ensuring helmet availability, educating riders on safety techniques, and modifying vehicle design.
With the right policies and infrastructure in place, cities can promote micro-mobility. For instance, Lucknow in India has bike lanes spread across the city. The city should pioneer the movement and build docking stations, along the lanes. Additionally, inspired by Superblock, Barcelona, certain internal roads of a larger block could become completely non-motorable to encourage internal transportation via human-sized vehicles or human powered vehicles. In the short run, however, cities could probably encourage micro-vehicles in university campuses, residential colonies, and smart cities, by delineating non-motor zones on the existing streets. Indian cities can, therefore, start small by starting small.
Originally published at https://indianexpress.com on May 25, 2019.