Can micromobility help us adopt new habits for more sustainable cities

Green TransitionInnovation

Imagine a Monday morning at the end of this decade. You get ready for work from your suburb home to the city centre, but there’s no need to get in your car. A smart app on your phone plans your daily commute, makes suggestions on how to reach your destination fastest and greenest.

You could take your e-bike to the closest light rail or metro station, take a short ride to a station not far from your workplace, where you would find one of many available kick-scooters to take you to your final destination, as part of the city’s micromobility hub.

Alternatively, you could take your zero-emission car to the city centre, where an app would guide you to the closest available parking near a micromobility hub at the edge of the car-free zone, where you could once again rent a scooter or a bicycle to finish your trip. Choosing greener and cheaper options, or even deciding to just walk the final leg of your journey could earn you credits in the city’s smart mobility app.

The EU Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy stresses the need for inter-urban and urban mobility to become more sustainable, smarter and healthier in the near future. Its aims are to help the Union reach its greenhouse reduction targets of -55% by 2030, to improve the transport and mobility to, in, and around cities, and to improve the efficiency of goods and home deliveries.

Dealing with a city’s transport needs is one of the greatest challenges for any city administration. Citizens need to move on a daily basis from their homes to their workplaces and back, they need to do their daily and weekly shopping, to meet their friends and family, to enjoy the city’s cultural offerings, provide engaging activities for their children and access the city’s crucial services, from administration to healthcare.

For a vast majority of cities, this means regular daily trips through the city which often challenge the city’s public transportation network and cause significant congestion in the city centres. Most urban city centres become dominated by cars, which offer citizens who can afford them higher flexibility and an opportunity to do more chores by making detours from their regular commute.

Cars cause a multitude of problems for cities, starting with their greenhouse gas emissions. According to the European Environment Agency, about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the EU come from transport, of which 60.6% is produced by cars. Cars also emit other pollutants, such as nitrous oxides and various microparticles which can devastate air quality and have a measurable impact on the citizens’ health.

Cars also make streets less safe for pedestrians, road lanes and parking spaces are often replacing the city’s tree cover, leading to an increase in average temperatures in the city, and also contribute to noise pollution.

This is one of the main reasons why the new EU Urban Mobility Framework calls for a more ambitious approach to sustainable urban mobility planning, mandating for 424 largest EU cities to adopt a sustainable mobility plan. Such plans should have public transport and active mobility – walking and cycling – at their core.

Currently, the primary focus is on micromobility – providing services that let users rent e-scooters, bikes and mopeds for single trips. Micromobility can help the citizens close the final leg on their journeys, from public transport stops to their final destinations, which effectively also opens up a wider range of possibilities for public transport solutions, such as streetcars and light rail systems.

The World Economic Forum suggests establishing micromobility hubs at subway stations, citing Munich as an example of a city which plans to establish up to 200 mobility hubs by 2035, offering citizens shared bikes, cars and scooters. Many of these hubs would be connected to existing subway stations.

Surveys in several world countries, including Italy, France, Germany and the UK, have indicated that between 60 and 70% of respondents would use micromobility for their daily commute. According to McKinsey, which conducted the studies, up to 40% of people globally would be willing to travel by bicycle or by an electric bike, some 16% by mopeds or electric mopeds, and some 12% by electric scooters. The remaining 31% would either walk, stick with their cars or use other forms of transport.

McKinsey also advises public transport operators to dedicate spaces in buses or trains for storage of various micromobility vehicles – something Berlin has been doing for years by allowing bicycles and e-scooters to be transported in its subways.

Cities should also carefully consider their providers for shared mobility services, favouring businesses that both have a broad product portfolio and understand the specifics of local mobility needs. McKinsey also suggests that cities themselves can promote micromobility growth by installing riding, parking and charging infrastructure that integrates several mobility modes. Both the WEF and McKinsey stress that micromobility becomes more attractive to citizens if the city invests in safe mobility corridors, such as bike lanes.

Another solution for those that, for various reasons, either cannot or will not exchange their cars for other forms of transport, is to encourage more efficient use of cars, and promote the use of non-polluting vehicles such as hydrogen-powered or battery-electric vehicles.

One of the ways to do so is by turning the city transport “smart”. Tracking the use of cars and traffic, collecting the data and responding to congestions in both real time and long-term. Introducing smart parking services, which guide drivers to nearest free parking space, reducing the number of cars idling through the centre in search of a place to park. Promoting carpooling and car-sharing, especially sharing of electric cars.

Electric car sharing is already being trialled in several Italian cities – Florence, Milan, Rome, Turin and Bologna – where the city governments have partnered up with a private company to provide these services, an optimal low-risk trial model for cities.

WEF also stresses that all measures aimed at promoting new green mobility models need to work as a part of a wider plan – cities should create long-term mobility plans and stand by them. Paris, for instance, introduced a strategy in 2020 that it would become a “15-minute city”, where all essential services would be accessible by a 15-minute walk or a bicycle ride from all residential spaces. This plan also requires construction of over 180 kilometres of permanent, segregated bicycle paths by 2026.

Amsterdam introduced plans to remove as many as 11,000 parking spaces by 2025 in an effort to make the city both greener and more accessible, but the plan required combining with other strategies, such as encouraging people to exchange their cars for a shared-mobility budget.

Some measures might encounter backlash from citizens and businesses – some shopkeepers in Paris fear permanent segregated bicycle paths could negatively affect their businesses – which is why the WEF stresses the importance of framing new mobility policies in positive terms, showing clear improvements in affordability, urban environment and travel time.

To be effective over the long term, green mobility plans need to be independent of election cycles and demonstrate a safe and reliable environment for private companies seeking to assist cities in their urban mobility plans. Companies that might be willing to invest in micromobility or other services to complement a city’s plans will be more attracted to cities who make clear and predictable goals and regulations than the ones that change their policies and plans each election cycle.

(Image credit: pikisuperstar / Freepik)