Guest Op-Ed: Micromobility Toward the Future – An Opportunity Arose in the Pandemic

If we attempt to depict the future of transportation, it might be low carbon, unmanned, shared, or electrified. On the other hand, it could be polluted, congested, privileged, or inequitable. Now an opportunity in micromobility (i.e., small, or light-weight transportation vehicles such as personal or shared bikes, scooters) has arisen per the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policies and innovations involving micromobility can potentially lead the transportation system in the U.S. toward a healthy recovery in the post-pandemic era.

Ever since the stay-at-home order took effect, the U.S. has witnessed a shift of travel behaviors that could ultimately become a “new normal”. This may lead us into rethinking the future of transportation

Looking forward, however, the pure promotion of micromobility would not be helpful to the transportation industry’s recovery if not supplemented by other strategies. After all, micromobility is less competitive in longer-distance travels, and there is a low share of bike commuters (e.g., less than two percent in most states) in the U.S. (League of American Bicyclists, 2016). Meanwhile, Dill and McNeil (2013) found that about 30 percent of adults in 50 of the largest U.S. cities fell under the “No Way, No How” group, meaning these people would never see cycling as an option in any circumstances. Furthermore, the increasing cost of shared micromobility membership could sometimes lead to a customer backlash (Rodriguez, 2020).

Despite the limitations of micromobility noted above, pairing micromobility with public transit to consistently facilitate multimodal travels can serve as one of the strategies during the recovery phase. This includes using micromobility as an access or egress mode or as a supplemental to public transit in areas with lower transit coverage. Studies such as (Ma et al., 2015) have found the positive correlations of ridership between the two systems before the pandemic, and the pandemic once again introduced new opportunities regarding their integration.  For example, while public transit may have difficulties recovering its ridership in the post-pandemic era, the increasing popularity of micromobility in the pandemic and a well-established linkage between the two systems could have a great potential of driving the transit ridership up. In other words, when the two are treated as “complementary goods”, one certainly carries another, taking effect via joint demand.

According to (Yáñez et al., 2009), there are both inertia (when people tend to stick to their habitual choice) and shock (when the habit is reshaped under abrupt changes) effects when it comes to mode choice behaviors. Under this theory, those who do not typically use bikes or scooters are less likely to use them in the future. The pandemic, on the other hand, is considered a “shock” that makes it possible for people to give micromobility a try. For instance, about one in 10 adults in the U.S. reported that they rode a bike for the first time in 2020 since COVID started (Bernhard, 2020). That said, the shock effect on micromobility and its integration with public transit may save the transit crisis as more vaccines are distributed and reopening is taking place as planned. Such integration can not only extend the range of micromobility trips but also enable door-to-door travels when bikes or scooters are in a feeder mode. In addition, operators can seek opportunities on discounts of pricing or fare integration when multimodal trips are conducted. This could make micromobility more accessible to low-income people or even improve their access to jobs.

Given that food deliveries are gaining popularity during the pandemic, ideas like incorporating more e-bikes or scooters into shorter distance deliveries may lead to further benefits such as energy savings and emission reductions. Additionally, the evolution of bikesharing and scooter sharing can also be job creating in areas such as drivers of rebalancing trucks, which may help with the recovery from the pandemic-caused job losses as well.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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