The emerging transportation category known as micromobility provides the missing link between personal vehicles and public transit. Often shared by riders on a rental basis, these devices — examples include e-bikes, electric scooters, mopeds, and electric skateboards seen everywhere from densely populated downtowns and college towns to sleepy suburban neighborhoods — help people traverse the proverbial “last mile” of their journeys.
Proponents of micromobility tout the transportation mode’s environment benefits, such as cleaner air and fewer traffic snarls. Opponents warn of myriad safety issues caused by micromobility options; accidents between these devices and motorized vehicles are not uncommon.
Micromobility Defined, in Simple Terms
What, exactly, is micromobility? Generally speaking, micromobility is a term used to describe electric transportation that typically has a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour. The Institute of Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) defines micromobility as “a range of small, lightweight devices operating at speeds typically below 25 km/h (15 mph)” that are “ideal for trips up to 10km,” or 6.2 miles.
The ITDP goes further to explain what micromobility is and is not:
- A micromobility device can be human-powered or electric, but not powered by an internal combustion engine.
- A micromobility device can be either privately owned or shared.
- Most commonly, micromobility devices operate at low speeds — up to 25 km/h or 15 mph. Some devices can travel at moderate speeds, of up to 45 km/h, or 28 miles per hour. Any device that travels faster than 45 km/h or 28 miles per hour cannot be considered a micromobility device.
Micromobility really took off because it was built on a model of shared, pay-per-ride usage — a tonic to the prohibitively expensive costs of owning and maintaining a car or truck. E-scooter and e-bike companies deployed smartphone apps that made it easy for riders to rent a scooter or bike for minutes or hours.
Today, the reality is that micromobility is here to stay. People and urban planners alike have embraced micromobility as a way to avoid traffic congestion in a low-cost, convenient, and mindful way.
How Can We Have Micromobility and Safety?
Despite the popularity of shared scooters and bikes, cities have struggled to create and enforce laws regarding micromobility that actually work. For example, most cities require micromobility riders to utilize bike lanes that are adjacent to fast-moving vehicular traffic, in an effort to avoid having these riders on city sidewalks.
The problem with this approach is that micromobility devices are not equipped to share the roadway with vehicles, which can reach maximum speeds well in excess of 50 miles per hour and have built-in safety features that micromobility devices inherently lack. Additionally, riders are not being adequately trained on how to negotiate city streets that were engineered for cars and trucks.
“I think it’s unfortunate with e-scooters that they get squeezed,” transportation law professor Bryant Walker Smith said in a recent Legal Beagle Podcast interview. “Vulnerable road users — active mobility users — are metaphorically and literally at the margins. Vehicles get 60 feet of pavement. Everybody else fights over the six feet of the curb.
“As a result, it’s less that [e-scooters] pose a particular safety problem and more that there’s no space for them. They’re endangered if they’re on the road, and they endanger others if they’re on the sidewalk. I think that’s a real tragedy caused principally by the dominance of the car, and not by the emergence of the e-scooter.”
Yet, deep within this conundrum lies a potential solution. In 2020, the Corporate Partnership Board (CPB), the International Transport Forum’s platform for engaging with the private sector and enriching global transport policy discussion with a business perspective, published a white paper entitled Safe Micromobility.
One of the solutions offered in the paper was to include micromobility training for road users. The CPB suggests that relevant training should be mandatory for obtaining a driver’s license. Noting that “the risk of injury could be highest during a person’s first few e-scooter rides,” the CPB argues that “all adults should have access to affordable micromobility safety training” and that “all training programmes should be regularly evaluated for their effectiveness and revised accordingly.”
CPB’s recommendation presents a viable option that could ensure more harmony between micromobility and personal vehicles. Further, this approach could offer a better understanding of how to utilize this technology in a safe manner. The cost of providing this additional training can be underwritten by the companies that are offering various micromobility options.
Incorporating Micromobility into Driver Education
A straightforward approach would be to incorporate these trainings into DMV tests. People already learn the rules of the road when they go to obtain their driver’s license. Why not teach the rules of micromobility at the same time?
The way things stand right now, cities are focusing heavily on how to regulate usage of micromobility options. Unfortunately, this is treating the symptom, rather than the cause, of a public safety issue. If driving schools and high schools alike were to incorporate micromobility safety into lesson plans, and DMVs were to make micromobility a part of licensing exams, we undoubtedly would reduce injuries and save lives.
Within all competing interests lies an inherent pathway forward. Companies that want to deploy micromobility transportation on city streets should be willing to work with local and state officials to provide training and resources, in an effort to educate all citizens of how to safely utilize micromobility options. In turn, local and state officials should be willing to sit down with these micromobility companies to discuss how training could be incorporated into current licensing requirements.