COVID-19 and the Future of Micromobility

by Editor, Camy Sandford.

What do recent developments mean for micromobility, and the future of UK transport?

Within the last ten days, the UK has experienced an unpredicted focal shift in terms of transportation. Where public transport networks were once the lifeblood of urban mobility, new capacity restrictions have forced Britain’s cities to diversify, with PM Boris Johnson advising:

“When you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle.”

As cities begin to grapple with the realities of socially distanced movement, to avoid stagnation some are being re-engineered, part of an approach Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo defines as “tactical urbanism”.  

Starting with the nation’s capital, in a recent address the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, explains:

“Many Londoners have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling during lockdown. 

“By quickly and cheaply widening pavements, creating temporary cycle lanes and closing roads to through traffic we will enable millions more people to change the way they get around our city.”

Similar policies are soon to be adopted across Manchester and Bristol, supported by a £250 million emergency fund to encourage what Transport Secretary Grant Shapps terms ‘active transport’. 

The first instalment of a £2 billion funding package announced earlier this month, these changes fundamentally aim to discourage public transport without a catastrophic surge in vehicular uptake. As councillor Angeliki Stogia, Manchester’s lead member for Transport and Environment, told the BBC:

“We hope that pedestrians and cyclists will reclaim the streets of this city”, maintaining mobility while flattening the climate curve. 

However, alongside a more ‘traditional’ emphasis on walking and cycling, these policies represent a marked acceleration in electric micromobility, as the government begins to embrace new technologies as a means of overcoming transport challenges on a wider scale. 

Although the potential for e-bike uptake remains substantial (as explored earlier this week in the case of Brompton Bicycle), the most dramatic change is now occurring within the e-scooter industry.

Originally scheduled to begin next year, the British government recently announced ground-breaking plans to move e-scooter trials forward, now set to begin as soon as June 2020. 

With testing isolated to four primary ‘mobility zones’, these trials mark the first step towards legality, overcoming what was once the key barrier to UK e-scooter uptake. 

Pre-COVID Growth 

In terms of e-mobility, it is no secret that mainland Europe has experienced growth ahead of the UK. 

As Stephen Loftus, Chief Commercial Officer at Brompton Bicycle told CleanTech News earlier this week:

“E-Bikes have been growing so rapidly – one million are now sold in Germany, and in the Netherlands more e-bikes are sold than normal bikes, in volume let alone value.” 

Comparatively, according to Mintel only 70,000 e-bikes were sold In Britain in 2018. 

“In the UK we are very much followers,” Loftus continues “… it’s important to just acknowledge that we are quite far behind what’s happening in Europe.”

This is no different in the case of e-scooters. Before the pandemic, the European industry was experiencing phenomenal growth, with leasing giant LIME amongst a host of others providing cheap, convenient transportation in cities such as Copenhagen.

Likewise, private ownership was also on the up, with P&S Intelligence estimating last year that the European electric scooters and motorcycles market alone would be expected to reach $892.4 million by 2025. 

Focusing now on the UK, although e-bikes were already seeing increased uptake, e-scooter growth had largely been stalled, with the government slow to legalise their public use. 

However, although public use may not have been permitted, within the last year an increased awareness of their benefits had been driving a tidal change in attitudes. 

As Sam McCarthy of Juice EV told CleanTech news:

“Even a year, or two years ago people might have seen scooters as ‘uncool’, but now there has been a shift in attitudes as people realise it’s actually a really cool way to move around the city”, leaving the UK public ready for its inevitable legalisation. 

Responses & Future Directions

With this in mind, it is no surprise that these developments have been met with an overwhelmingly positive response, particularly within the cleantech community.

Addressing e-scooter trials directly, McCarthy said: “I think it’s a great step forward. I think it’s really showing a government understanding that there needs to be an alternative for the ways we used to move around because that simply isn’t feasible right now in the scale it used to be.”

“It’s just going to speed everything up, which is what we were hoping for,” said Adam Norris, CEO of Pure Electric

Reflecting an attitude held throughout the industry, it seems that far from a ‘scooter apocalypse’, these developments have been hugely positive for micromobility. 

Alongside increased interest seen by Brompton Bicycle, Pure Electric and Juice EV alike, e-scooter giant Lime has recently announced a substantial $170 million investment from Uber, with the JUMP e-bike soon to be incorporated into their fleet. Meanwhile, 250 Lime scooters are back on the roads in Brussels, after a brief hiatus due to safety concerns regarding COVID-19. 

If UK trials prove successful, this is a model that the UK may very well follow, with Pure Electric now exploring a partnership with Beryl to incorporate leasing into their business model. 

However, Norris is clear that moving forward, rental trials are not enough. With both Brompton and Pure Electric reporting that the majority of regular users opt to purchase their own e-bike or scooter, Norris argues that: 

“Some of the trials should be with private users and not just with rental scooters. A good analogy would be if you only reviewed how people used Boris Bikes you wouldn’t get a clear picture about how people use bicycles, so just looking at rental scooters… is not a good barometer for understanding how Londoners commute, or how urban transport works.”

When discussing growth in the long term, Norris also calls for increased clarity regarding the law, and the length of the trials. He speculates that “hopefully they’ll be a few months and then we can move forward,” remaining optimistic about future uptake.

Although some motorists disagree with the restrictions on vehicular use, a city reliant on cars is not only inefficient (with average driving speed in the capital only 7mph) but detrimental for the environment, and thus an unsustainable model looking forward.

As a result, Norris says of car-free areas that “I think they will be successful in the long term. It’s just about giving the government the opportunity to put them through when they’ve wanted to for a long time.”

Therefore, although the outcome of these changes is as yet unknown, the future of the UK’s urban transport seems to revolve centrally around both micromobility, and electrification.

Camy Sandford

Camy Sandford is an Editor and Senior Writer for CleanTech News. Camy’s focus for sustainable development is longstanding, growing stronger as the realities of the global climate crisis have become more apparent. With a diverse background in the field, she remains most passionate about driving carbon reductions through behavioural change. Firm in her belief that small-scale collective change can have a huge impact, her focus at CleanTech News will centre around finance. Keeping readers up to date on cutting edge innovation, she aims to encourage and support global corporations to bring sustainability to the forefront of their agendas, shining a light on successful current initiatives.