What Cities Should Know About the Micromobility Landscape

January 28, 2020 - (4 min read)

Four years ago, scooters were the mobility mode of choice for the under-10 crowd. With brightly colored wheels and a back-pedal brake, it was easy to see why.

Today, all across the country, professionals in suits can be seen whizzing down bike lanes on electric scooters and bikes. The rise of micromobility was swift and daunting for cities: Seemingly overnight, dockless bikes and scooters appeared on city streets, and curb management became a whole new game. And now, shared mopeds have been added to the mix in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Miami; Oakland; Austin, and San Francisco.

We asked city officials who work on micromobility about what cities should know. Below is what we learned from San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

San Francisco: Where Mopeds Reigned and Scooters Adapted

In San Francisco, mopeds are not new: they’ve had shared mopeds since 2012. From a city perspective, they were easier to integrate into the landscape because there were already laws in place that governed the operation, safety and parking parameters of motorcycles and mopeds

What was new was the sharing aspect. When scooters joined the fray, permitting needed to be updated and the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) realized that they needed to harmonize the permitting programs. The priority was to ensure they were protecting the public interest and that operators were complying with city requirements.

So, what should cities that are new to shared micromobility know? Andy Thornley from the Municipal Transportation Agency recommends that cities, “learn from what everyone else is doing and be thinking about what trips you are trying to help people make.”

With the myriad modes available, it’s important to clearly understand how residents use different transportation modes, and how the city can help manage that demand. There should also be an emphasis placed on building out a micromobility strategy so that when mobility companies come calling, your city has a clear picture of whether or not companies can address your community’s mobility needs.

What will the next mode be? While shared electric pogo sticks and yoga mats are fun to think about, what we heard from officials is that we have hit a plateau.

“We’re going to go back to the tools that we have and sharpen them and polish them,” says Thornley. Managing micromobility successfully and efficiently, and in a way that allows for flexibility as demand changes, is key. The plateau in micromobility offers the space to get a handle on the new landscape of urban mobility.

Washington DC: Innovations in Managing Micromobility Providers

This year, four scooter companies were selected to deploy in Washington, D.C. Unlike in the previous iteration, the 2020 application focused a lot more on the goals the city wants to accomplish, as opposed to a more exploratory pilot program. This time, companies that wanted to learn about city goals and resident needs, and work with the city were the ones that stood out.

Sharada Strasmore, the shared micromobility planner at DDOT, pointed out that there are already lots of good resources (see NLC’s report on Micromobility) available, and that borrowing ideas from permit forms that already exist could be useful for cities that are still building out their programs.

The key point Strasmore emphasized for city leaders is that not all the benefits that come with micromobility can be measured and that infrastructure needs are different for every community. She also wants local leaders to be aware that, as this technology expands to new cities, industry groups will continue to form around modes of micromobility. From a city government perspective, elected leaders should be prepared to interact with these groups and bring their expertise to the table.

What Does the Future of Micromobility Look Like?

Resoundingly, cities have told us that we’ve reached our peak. People have now modified most of the existing modes of micromobility. Different designs may exist, but the modes of mobility themselves are unlikely to change much. This is good news for cities, towns and villages that are still trying to innovate, or to update or craft permits. As both San Francisco and D.C. pointed out, adaptability and flexibility are critical.

As local elected leaders continue to lead the conversations with private mobility providers around resident mobility needs, an open mind is crucial.

“Having a mayor that believes in mobility – there’s no substitute for that,” said Thornley.



About the Author: Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.





About the Author: Kyle Funk is the research assistant, urban innovation, at the National League of Cities.