Laura Scherling | Essays

How Micromobility Vehicles are Redesigning Global Transportation Systems

Woman riding a RadMission Electric Metro bike. Photo courtesy of Rad Power Bikes.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt business-as-usual, a micromobility revolution is quietly moving forward. The design and range of lightweight human-powered and electric vehicles has evolved and adoption quickly expanded, filling the streets with scooters, mopeds, skateboards, and bicycles in every shape, size, and color imaginable. Sales of bicycles are booming, increasing by 62% in 2020 . Trips taken by shared e-scooters increased by 126% in 2019 over 2018. As global interest in “non-car mobility” surges, there are several factors to consider. Micromobility signifies a potential total redesign of transportation as we know it, paving the way to create a more sustainable urban transport system, reducing “tons of CO2 emissions”. Human-powered and electric vehicles can support easier commutes, provide recreation, and provide the political will to support the “development of biking lanes'' and safer streets, and ultimately save riders time. In this essay, a number of challenges and design-focused cases are considered, drawing on insights from global shared e-scooter company Bird, to leading providers of private vehicles like Unagi Scooters and Rad Power Bikes.

It is only recently that car-friendly countries like the U.S. have seen a spike in interest in bikes, scooters, and other small electric vehicles. In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found that while “bikes are more common around the world than cars,” bike ownership continues to be more routine in Asia and Europe––with countries like Japan, Thailand, Germany and Poland in the lead in their survey. Pew also observed that bike owners in the U.S. tend to be more well-off financially, where biking can be seen as a recreational activity. The pandemic bike boom in the U.S., according to The League of American Bicyclists, is “likely centered around non-work trips,” yet there is a lot to indicate that non-car mobility enthusiasm will continue to take hold in the US and other countries, with many design-driven initiatives encouraging riders to choose a “little vehicle” as a sustainable, fast, and affordable mode of transportation. As described by David Hyman, CEO of Unagi Scooters, “There’s a proliferation of micromobility in cities, including major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London...it’s the most efficient way to get from point A to point B inside the city. Still, so much has to happen. City infrastructure has to improve to support it.”

Bird scooter in the Bronx, Courtesy of Bird.

For those first time or occasional riders, safety is often the foremost concern. Countries with “bike-friendly policies” and better designed biking infrastructure boast more small vehicle riders and also see lower cycling gender gaps. In a survey of e-scooter riders, Bird found that 61% of e-scooter riders list protected bike lanes as the single biggest factor contributing to their sense of safety. Projects to address the development of supportive road infrastructure and improve rider safety have gained traction, as seen through recent multilateral municipal and organizational partnerships that leverage design in every sense. Industrial and product designers, urban designers, engineers, architects, policy designers and researchers, and visual communication designers must work together to make these large-scale projects happen.

In New York City, a 32.5-mile Manhattan Waterfront Greenway has become the most heavily used bikeway in the United States. Its design improved safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, while bringing much-needed open space to underserved areas, and restoring access to the waterfront. Amidst the pandemic, ambitious bikeway design projects are underway in every part of the world to help promote socially distanced travel options. In August 2020, Turkey unveiled a 32 mile protected lane in the Hatay Province. In September 2020, Transport for London (TfL) debuted southeast London’s first major protected bike lane. In Boston, the city’s Connect Downtown project to increase walkability and create a network of safe, comfortable bike lanes is now underway. Rad Power Bikes noted in our interview, “In major cities, traffic congestion on streets has made them difficult for bikers to navigate. That is starting to change as we see some major cities making way for car-free zones.”

Safety concerns also point to larger, systemic issues around transportation equality. It’s now “vital that municipal and industry leaders work to create micromobility infrastructure that fosters equity and inclusion.” Early micromobility ridership appears disproportionately male and is often viewed as “an activity of affluence”. When it comes to micromobility, like other parts of our transportation system, women, people of color, and underserved, low-income communities have less access, whether financially, geographically, or in terms of personal safety.

Community programs developed by Bird and Lyft have worked to develop discounted rideshare for low-income communities. At $39 per month on a 3-month long contract, Unagi’s pay-as-you-go scooter subscription service lets riders bring home a Model One E500. Ebikes, in particular, have proven to be a favored transportation mode for delivery “gig” workers who are frequently immigrants and people of color. Cycling advocates have organized to protect these workers (who make about $13-16 per hour), seeing a victory in New York State’s legalization of e-bikes and e-scooters in April 2020. Rad Power Bikes also points out that ebikes “make deliveries eco-friendly and cut down on delivery truck traffic,” and if you’re living in New York you might see groceries being delivered via e-cargo Rad Power Bikes. Still, in order for micromobility to be fully inclusive and accessible transportation it “cannot be just for the young, childless, single and male.” Organizations like Equiticity and Transportation Alternatives in cities like Chicago and New York are helping to address the inequalities pervasive in transportation. Equiticity describes that they “support the City of Chicago’s efforts to increase mobility, operationalize racial equity, and reduce congestion.”

In terms of sustainability, the early numbers look good for micromobility, with regular bikes being associated with limited carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e), and e-bikes, e-scooters and e-mopeds being associated with emissions on a per passenger mile basis roughly similar to mass transit. Most of the emissions associated with these vehicles relate to the energy used in their manufacturing. It’s estimated that “global carbon emissions need to fall by a staggering 45 per cent by 2030”. Placing this into the individual context, the average passenger vehicle produces about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 each year, therefore every mile you spend on a micromobility vehicle instead of a car helps chip away at your carbon footprint.

Nearly a decade ago, the European Cycling Federation estimated that if everyone in the EU cycled as much as the average Dane (an admirable 600 miles a year), the EU could reduce CO2e by more than 25%. In Denmark, often thought as the best cycling country in the world despite the rainy weather, avid cyclists embrace a stylish biking culture and companies like Velorbis, demonstrating that a state-of-the-art build is also inherently tied to its design aesthetic. But what exactly makes a great lightweight vehicle design—and historically speaking, how did this come about?

Inside Unagi’s Venice California showroom. Photo courtesy of Unagi Scooters.

Micromobility design dates back to centuries of innovation. Karl Von Drais is credited with inventing and designing the first pedal-less bicycle in 1817. Remarkably, Von Drais’ pedal-less bicycle, the Laufmaschine, was created at the same time as the agricultural disaster, the “Year without a summer”. His Laufmaschine was also famously criticized by John Keats. In the 1860s a “commercially successful design”—, the Michaux Velocipede—, was later brought to market by inventors Pierre Lallement, Pierre Michaux, and Ernest Michaux. Many innovations emerged after these early designs: the safety bicycle designed by inventor and engineer Harry John Lawson in 1876, the Van Cleve designed by the Wright Brothers in 1896, and the Schwinn Paramount debuted by designer and draftsman Frank W. Schwinn in 1938. Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, scooters became popular in Europe and the US a whole century before their recent reemergence. In the 1950s, skateboard design prototypes originated in California and Hawaii, seeing a breakthrough in contemporary skateboarding with Larry Stevenson’s invention of the kicktail, which allowed aerial maneuvers. While it’s complicated to juxtapose the three, personal mobility vehicles have a long history of use, and have all seen a major change and potential for reinvigoration with advances in the electric battery.

Today, teams of designers continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with lightweight vehicle design. In Bird’s vehicle research and development process their “aerospace and automotive engineers are constantly innovating based on the experience and feedback from tens of millions of completed scooter rides globally.” Their design focus has included the development of leading battery technology, autonomous damage sensors, and puncture proof tires for a “more reliable and comfortable ride” suitable for mass shared use. Rad Power Bikes’ RadMission electric metro bike is designed and built with “lightweight and streamlined components that make it look and feel more like a traditional bike'' making it a “great entry point for people who are new to ebikes or biking in general.” In this way, the aesthetic should not be downplayed against the functionality given its high-torque 500W motor and battery pack that lasts for about a 25-45+ mile range.

The former CEO of Beats Music (acquired by Apple), founder & CEO of MOG (acquired by Beats By Dre), David Hyman was at a “turning point” in his life when he started Unagi, inspired after purchasing his first e-scooter. He went looking for e-scooters designers, discovered a crowdfunding site where three young Chinese industrial designers had posted an e-scooter prototype, traveled to meet them about their design, and a partnership led to the founding of Unagi Scooters. He believes that, “Unagi wins on performance, but design is just as important. Design is an extension of you, whether it’s a car or a bicycle, or a scooter, or headphones, it’s a statement about who you are. Design matters … as much as anything.” In addition to design engineering and the aesthetic experience, Unagi Scooters also made an essential point about the experience itself. In growing his brand, Hyman has kept brand loyalists in mind, forging partnerships with celebrities like DJ and producer Steve Aoki and singer-songwriter Billie Eilish. Eilish, who announced an eco-friendly tour before the pandemic, had a custom designed scooter created for her by Hyman and graffiti artist Toon when they learned that she rides her Unagi around the studio, on stage, and, famously, across the grounds of music festivals like Coachella.

Unagi x Billie Eilish scooter. Photo courtesy of Unagi Scooters.

It seems that even with some definitive challenges, the benefits of affordable, lightweight vehicles are clear. The movement itself speaks to the powerful ways in which designers are innovating in the market for transportation––from the design and build, functionality, and brand appeal. Fundamentally, bikes and scooters can support a more active lifestyle and provide an efficient and affordable means of transportation, ultimately helping to create more sustainable places to live. As the Covid-19 vaccine is rolled out, there is an urgency to “build back better”, making equitable economic and sustainable development a high priority in the advancement of micromobility. The rebuild should support these new and sustainable means of getting around. Improved cycling infrastructure and car-free zones are the best way to make this micromobility global transportation revolution a permanent part of everyday life after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Posted in: Infrastructure, Product Design, Technology

Laura Scherling Laura Scherling is a designer, researcher, and educator––working and teaching at Columbia University. Scherling holds a doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College. She is the co-editor of the recently published book Ethics in Design and Communication: New Critical Perspectives (Bloomsbury Academic UK). Scherling is also the co-founder of GreenspaceNYC, a nonprofit sustainability and design collective. Her work has been published by Brookings Metro, Design and Culture, Spark Journal, Interiors: Design/Architecture/Culture, and the Futures Worth Preserving Cultural Constructions of Nostalgia and Sustainability. Her work can be viewed at laurascherling.info.

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