Shared micromobility services arrived in France like a storm: between October 2017 and September 2018, 15 000 dockless bicycles were deployed in France (6t, 2018). Dockless shared e-scooter services quickly followed: a year after the initial launch of Lime scooters in June of 2018, 15 operators were offering similar services in the city of Paris alone. These new services redefined the face of the urban mobility ecosystem, and many local authorities were not prepared for this revolution, soon followed by another unexpected event: the global COVID-19 pandemic. The current health crisis encourages planners to explore novel ways to reconcile social distance and mobility. What roles have shared micromobility service come to play in European cities? How can local authorities capture the opportunities they offer while limiting the negative externalities they may entail? Paris-based social science research firm 6t has studied micromobility service use patterns, and explored local authorities’ stance towards regulating them. This article revisits some of these key results in light of the current pandemic.
Where does micromobility fit in the sustainable mobility mix?
Micromobility service operators underline the role their services could play in supporting sustainable mobilities in cities. Has that role actually materialised? Large-scale user surveys conducted by 6t offer some answers. The first survey was conducted in 2018 with a sample of 2349 Paris-based dockless bicycle service users; the second one was conducted in 2019 with 4382 shared dockless e-scooter service users in the French cities of Paris, Lyon and Marseille.
First, it appears that dockless bicycles and e-scooters are not a daily mode of transport, but support occasional trips. In the case of both services, only 6% of users rent a dockless bicycle or an e-scooter almost everyday. These occasional trips are mostly related to leisure motives: only 11% of e-scooter trips have the workplace or place of study as an origin/destination, and only 17% of dockless bicycle trips are home-work trips, compared to 38% of regular bicycle trips in Paris.
Had these services not existed, would users have relied on a less sustainable mode? It does not appear to be the case: in the absence of shared micromobility services, 42% of dockless bicycle users would have used public transport, as would have 33% of shared e-scooter users. Micromobility services also constitute an alternative to walking, especially when it comes to shared e-scooters, as 44% of users would have walked had they not been able to use the service. It would also have been the case for one dockless bicycle user in four. All in all, only 3% of shared e-scooter users and 2% of dockless bicycle users would have used a private car. It thus appears that, in the case of Paris, micromobility users are not car drivers going green, but rather alternative mobility users seizing a new mobility option. In this context, do micromobility services contribute to creating sustainable mobility ecosystems?
These services display a key asset: they are highly supportive of intermodal mobility practices. 27% of dockless bicycle trips and 23% of e-scooter trips were actually combined with another. The dockless nature of these services frees users from the constraint of finding a secure parking spot, and allows for the overcoming of a key barrier observed when studying urban cycling practices: the fear of theft.
Capturing the benefits through regulation
While micromobility services offer certain opportunities, they also come with a wide array of negative externalities. In face of important street clutter and vandalism, many cities decided to prohibit these services, especially in the initial stages of the micromobility boom. This was the case of cities as diverse as Austin, Amsterdam, Nantes or Bordeaux. Many of these cities have, however, revisited their decision and devised new regulation provisions to optimise benefits while limiting drawbacks. This has been a key area of research for 6t: if micromobility services are considered to be a useful addition to the mobility mix, how should they be regulated?
Efficient and relevant regulation comes with two key challenges, both stemming from an institutional culture mismatch between local authorities, on the one hand, and service operators, on the other. Service operators rely on a complex, still unstable business model that implies high vehicle density to ensure service reliability, and in turn, attract users. Local authorities, on the other hand, are wary of street clutter and may see limiting fleet sizes, especially in initial stages, as a relevant solution. However, too low a fleet cap may result in a de facto prohibition, given this business model incompatibility; this is only one of many examples. How can city governments, then, regulate in a business-aware way to ensure the duration of these services in the long run? To answer this question, data is key: many codes of conduct, licences, permits, and other forms of micromobility service provision agreements come with data sharing agreements, and local authorities now have the means to understand how these services are used, where they are most relevant, and how much may be too much. However, interviews conducted by 6t’s team with 20 local authorities in France revealed that many city governments are not yet able to dynamically engage with private operators’ data to revisit regulation provisions. Developing these competences is key to avoiding too stringent, or to the contrary, too lenient regulation. To develop these competences, dialogue between local authorities should be ensured: in the initial stages of the French micromobility boom, major cities immediately mobilised pre-existing tools – such as those regulating the private use of the public space – to curtail the detrimental growth of these services. Other local authorities, on the other hand, were convinced that their hands were tied until a ‘dockless mobility law’ would be passed. All in all, local authorities need to develop their competences and learn from each other in order to enter a productive dialogue with service operators, on equal terms.
Micromobility in the post-COVID-19 city
The COVID-19 crisis has been particularly acute in the field of transport planning: how can mobility be facilitated in dense cities in face of a global pandemic? Micromobility services belong to the realm of the proximate that became ours in the lockdown months: the average dockless e-scooter and bicycle trip is about 5 km. These modes are also individual modes, ridden in the open air, that allow for social distancing while on the move. However, it is worth underlining that these services are far from inclusive: not only are men strongly overrepresented among micromobility service users, but 53% of e-scooter users and 68% of dockless bicycle users work as executives or in higher intellectual professions. This lack of inclusivity can be explained by both the high cost of these services, and a pre-existing context in which urban cycling remains a masculine, upper class practice. Ensuring sustainable and healthy mobility in the city yet to come thus implies pursuing pre-existing efforts: (i) developing a secured micromobility infrastructure, may it be in the form of protected lanes or parking infrastructure ; (ii) changing symbolic representations of micromobility to make it a legitimate option for a wider array of users ; (iii) engaging with the gendered, classed and racialised nature of day-to-day activities, and its structuring role on mobility practices and constraints. While technological innovations may help, inclusive mobility can only exist in inclusive cities.
6t, ADEME, 2018. Etude sur les impacts des services de vélos en free-floating sur les mobilités actives [Researching the impacts of dockless shared bicycle services on active travel]. 86 pages.
6t, 2019. Usages et usagers des trottinettes électriques en free-floating en France [Uses and users of dockless shared e-scooter services], 158 p. http://6-t.co/trottinettes-freefloating.
6t, 2019, Livre blanc de la mobilité en free-floating [White Paper : for a relevant and efficient regulation of dockless mobility services]. https://6-t.co/etudes/livre-blanc-de-la-mobilite-en-free-floating/