Half of all Asia’s 4.5 billion citizens live in urban areas. As the continent’s cities expand at an unprecedented rate, even the wealthy are trapped in crippling traffic congestion. We all breathe the same cancer-causing air pollutants.
Petrol-powered vehicles, particularly those used for short, inefficient trips, are the main culprit. For many developing cities, their outdated and incomplete public transport systems keep the masses in their cars. Public transit is not a viable alternative. Those living in more-developed urban areas may actually have good transit links. But to persuade urbanites to use them, we need to solve the “first and last mile” of the commute. That’s the problematic last step to get travellers from public transport to home or work.
Sustainable urbanization is one of the chief challenges of the 21st century. How city dwellers travel is a key part of the puzzle. Micromobility options such as e-scooters, e-bikes and bikes — either shared or privately owned — show great promise in shrinking the physical footprint required to move people short distances.
What does micromobility mean?
Electric cars and autonomous vehicles grab all the headlines. But they are future solutions, meanwhile micromobility is here, and it can have an immediate impact.
What exactly is micromobility? It’s a catch-all term for any form of what we can call a “very light vehicle.”
Micromobility options such as e-scooters, e-bikes and shared bikes have gained support from advocates who claim they improve access to public transportation, cut back on inefficient car trips, and lower the environmental footprint. Micromobility promises faster and more-convenient travel around Asia’s cities for a fraction of the cost of the gas-guzzling alternatives.
E-scooters, for example, are more efficient than most modes of transport. According to Wired magazine, one kilowatt hour of energy can only fuel a gasoline-powered car to travel 0.8 miles. An electric car can travel 4.1 miles under the same conditions. However, an electric scooter can travel 82.8 miles using the same amount of energy. All this can be achieved without having to build expensive fuel infrastructure. Users can charge e-scooters at any electrical socket.
With any new technology, there are teething troubles. Add to that there is the difficulty of adapting human behaviour.
Bike sharing made the biggest splash in China. An initial wave of optimism masked problems that soon became clear. City infrastructure was lacking. City regulation was absent. Ofo and Mobike, and plenty of competitors, suddenly flooded cities with millions of bikes. They became an obstacle, and an eyesore.
At least riding a bike is as easy as, well, riding a bike. E-scooters are faster, a bit more “high-tech” and riders are less familiar with them, which raises safety concerns.
The media are quick to report on e-scooter battery fires, which in truth are rare. Injuries involving riders and passers-by are a more frequent concern. Officials in some cities in the Asia Pacific region have been perturbed, and perhaps overreacted. Auckland implemented a temporary ban, to iron out early safety problems. Singapore has recently announced that e-scooters will be banned from public footpaths, as well as roads, effectively rendering them useless. That’s despite the fact that Singapore has 100,000 private e-scooter owners, and 30% of the city’s food delivery drivers rely on that mode of transport.
There are of course other concerns such as vandalism and theft, particularly with dockless vehicles. Micromobility companies try to anticipate where and how these instances will occur, and have worked to improve locking and security systems.
Making the micromobility move
Regulators should experiment with “sandboxes” that allow real-world trials in which providers test different approaches. For example, varying the rules for on-street or on-pavement riding likely makes sense. They also need to establish protocols for parking, geofencing, speed limits, helmets and other safety measures. Regulators will, through experimentation, be able to establish what does work, and what is not allowed. Once the ground rules are clear, administrators can put in place fines and penalties for reckless riders.
Cities should start with a small number of e-scooters or e-bikes, and then increase their availability based on demand. One concept is to base the number on a formula of e-scooters per 100 residents. This could be a “dynamic cap,” with the ceiling raised periodically if sharing companies can demonstrate sufficient use to warrant it.
The harsh reality of Asia’s cities is that e-scooters must be allowed to use the pavement or the road if no bike lane exists – as is highly likely at the moment. This would necessitate an appropriate speed limit. Meanwhile, city planners should be allowing for this new reality in the road system.
Despite those early doubters, many cities in Asia have already given the green light to e-scooters. They see the benefits of integrating them into the existing transportation network, and compensating for deficiencies in it to reach underserved communities. As with other micoromoility options, e-scooters present an exciting opportunity to provide citizens with greater freedom. E-scooters also make it clear that transportation does not have to equate to congestion and dangerous emissions.
Making micromobility work, as this Deloitte report suggests, will require new thinking, bravery and trust from all concerned. Regulators must balance safeguarding the public interest and providing an innovative environment. Done right, micromobility modes of transport can serve Asia’s urban areas in ways that benefit the consumer, complement the existing transport system, and make Asia’s cities more livable.