Micromobility needs one more push

The past few years have seen a lot of new planning for urban transport with more cycle routes, walkways and electric mobility schemes. Yet many of these schemes have yet to materialise, raising fears that the mobility revolution could stall

Home Life Sustainability mobility Micromobility needs one more push

Back in the depths of the Covid lockdown there was talk of an urban transport revolution. The promise was that the future of transport would be sustainable, carbon-free, non-polluting and low impact. The new normal would be built around bicycles, e-transport and good old-fashioned walking.

So what happened to what the UK government called a “once in a lifetime opportunity to create a shift in attitudes for generations to come”?
The answer is that while there has been progress, the mobility revolution is still unfinished business.

Challenges to the vision

You may recall that just a couple of years ago cities such as London, Paris, Brussels, Milan, Barcelona and many more announced ambitious plans to re-purpose their urban infrastructure to create more car-free space and encourage the growth of the ‘micromobility' sector including bicycles, electric bikes and scooters. According to the European Cyclists' Federation, almost 2,500km of major city infrastructure projects had been announced by July 2020. Yet by last year only around 57 per cent – or 1,440km – of new infrastructure had been completed. Perhaps that is not too bad a record in only one year, and some projects may still be on track to be completed soon, but there has also been a pushback against some of these measures. 

In the London borough of Wandsworth, for example, a trial to restrict car use in ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods' had to be abandoned after only a few weeks, as car users protested against the changes. There has also been a significant swing back to pre-pandemic modes of transport in many cities: by the end of last year the use of shared micromobility in Italy, the UK, France and Germany was barely any higher than before the Covid pandemic, according to the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility quoted in the Financial Times.

McKinsey also suggests that in Europe car use has barely changed since before the pandemic: pre-Covid, 80 per cent of people reported using their cars every week, while by November 2021 the figure was 78 per cent. In the US, too, car use figures have changed little in that time: from 84 per cent to 80 per cent. 

It seems that for city authorities, a transport revolution is easier to imagine than to deliver. Yet the evidence is that where the planners stick to their vision, the impact is considerable.

Safety first

A 2021 study from the climate policy think tank, the Mercator Research Institute, shows that the introduction of new micromobility infrastructure in many European cities has been successful in shifting transport to more sustainable modes. 

After filtering out the effect of Covid lockdowns, the Mercator study shows that pop-up bike lanes generated a lot more bike journeys – almost doubling in some cases. Using a “rule of thumb metric” from the public health field that every kilometre cycled represents $0.50 saved in healthcare costs, it calculates that the overall health benefit of all that extra pedal power is more than $1 billion a year.

And if we ask why infrastructure investments like cycle lanes are so effective, it seems that it is because they address the biggest issue when it comes to micromobility use: safety. A study of 28 countries published this year by market researchers Ipsos shows that safety is what most influences whether people use bicycles: the safer they feel, the more likely they are to make short journeys by bike.

Full speed ahead

According to Ipsos, the country where people are most likely to say that cycling is safe (due mainly to good infrastructure) is the Netherlands, which is why it is also the place where people are most likely to use a bicycle as their primary form of transport for short journeys. In contrast, over half of people worldwide still believe that cycling where they live is too dangerous.

At the moment it does seem that some cities are moving backwards not forwards and returning to pre-Covid transport habits.

But the message to planners and policy-makers is unmistakeable: if you want to encourage micromobility and reduce CO2 emissions and healthcare costs, then move forwards on sustainable city infrastructure.

So perhaps it is time to remind the planners that bicycles and scooters have no reverse gear. 

Photo credits: Davide Bart. Salvemini - IG @davide_bart_salvemini