As the Impacts of Coronavirus Grow, Micromobility Fills in the Gaps
At the time of this writing, COVID-19 is disrupting peoples’ daily lives in many ways, including restricting daily travel, from optional work-from-home arrangements to complete shutdowns. While the most common advice remains to limit travel, having reliable, affordable choices for that travel matters now more than ever. New York City is adding more space for cyclists, and micromobility users, to support the sudden shift to small individual transport modes on their streets. Bogotá, Colombia has added 76 kilometers of cycle lanes practically overnight to accommodate more riders and social distancing. Cities such as Mexico City and London are seeing the benefits of many years spent growing their cycling networks, and are moving to make temporary cycling measures permanent. Anecdotally, there are stories everywhere of people switching from transit trips to cycling and e-scooters, where these modes are available. Though much of this thinking is based on historic views and plans around cycling, this is a moment to acknowledge the significance of the ways in which the family of small modes, including cycling, enable us to nimbly navigate our cities.
This matters not just for COVID-19, but for a city’s overall resilience. Whether it’s a global pandemic, severe storms, poor air quality, or other effects of climate change, cities will continue to be faced with and have to persevere through disruptions. To keep cities moving, we need all options to be available: bus, metro, shared taxis, walking, and, of course, growing micromobility should be a part of every city’s resilience plan.
What is Micromobility?
Micromobility is a term that has recently crept into vernacular of urbanists, planners, and even in the tech world. However, there is not a clear consensus on what micromobility really means. ITDP, in consultation with the wider sustainable transport community, has developed a definition of micromobility, which describes the growing family of small, lightweight devices operating at speeds typically below 25km/h and ideal for trips under 10 km. Micromobility can be personally-owned or shared; electric or manual. However, devices with top speeds above 45km/h, or those powered by internal combustion engines are not micromobility. Motorcycles and seated motor scooters, for example, are not included in this definition. Because new devices continue to proliferate, this definition is meant to include current and possible future modes.
In the world’s most populous cities, the majority of trips are already taken by walking, cycling, and transit. Cities in India, for example, have less than 10% of trips taken by car. Elevating the priority of micromobility modes gives travelers another private vehicle alternative, particularly if it is integrated with other modes and affordable for all.
As we battle global crises of public health, climate change, and road safety, we cannot miss this opportunity to prioritize non-motorized transport. Now is the time for cities to respond by building infrastructure for and making space on our streets to accommodate micromobility modes. This must happen in conjunction with enacting policies that keeps its many users safe, and encourages more people to switch modes.
Without a consensus definition for micromobility, cities have struggled to standardize regulations across different modes. Organizations like the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the International Transport Forum (ITF) have developed categorization approaches for different micromobility modes based on weight, speed, and power. ITDP’s definition builds on these efforts, but provides a clear, straightforward definition for micromobility that can be used and understood by many different stakeholders, from city regulators, to journalists, to the public. Having a clear definition empowers cities, in particular, to more clearly designate which modes should be using bicycle infrastructure (any micromobility device with a top speed of 25km/h) and which should not (high-speed devices like mopeds and motorcycles).
One concept that is gaining popularity is the idea of designing Light Individual Transport (LIT) lanes to be more inclusive of micromobility modes beyond bicycles. Consistent with cycle tracks or protected bicycle lanes (PBLs), LIT lanes physically separate micromobility users from vehicle traffic on streets and pedestrians on sidewalks. US cities including Atlanta and Portland have adopted this term, and organizations like the International Transport Forum (ITF) have called for more clearly defined LIT infrastructure specifications.
Why Micromobility Matters
Cities are becoming more densely populated with continued predicted growth. The UN predicts that over two thirds of the world’s population will be urban dwellers by 2050. That means more people in cities will need access to flexible, reliable, affordable mobility services for lots of different types of trips. We already know cities don’t have enough space to move and store private cars for all those new residents, and congestion is making driving less competitive with other modes during peak hours. Not to mention the safety and air quality threats cars pose for everyone.
Cities have to rethink their streetscapes to adapt to the changing mobility needs of residents. This means creating safe, functional spaces for non-car users, namely pedestrians and people using micromobility modes. With most urban trips clocking in under five kilometers, micromobilty presents a perfect opportunity for people to move around quickly, autonomously, and most importantly without emitting harmful pollutants. Popularity among users has exploded in the past two years, and shared bicycle and scooter systems have doubled ridership within the past year. This growth in micromobility users has renewed and catalyzed more calls for safe infrastructure that calms traffic and separates non-vehicles from vehicles and pedestrians. ITDP recommends that streets with higher vehicle speeds (up to 50km/h) and volumes have a protected bicycle or LIT lane for micromobility users. Streets without a protected lane should be slow streets, with a vehicle speed limit of 30km/h. Supportive infrastructure like cycle highways and designated parking make conditions safer and more convenient for micromobility users.
As micromobility continues to grow and evolve, cities will need to support this mode with a progressive agenda and forward thinking policies. Micromobility is on track to become a popular, safe, low-carbon mode of transport, during the Coronavirus crisis and after. This new reality we find ourselves in poses an opportunity to upend the current thinking about how people get around, and how continuing to prioritize space in our cities for private vehicles is not a resilient path forward.