During the pandemic period, changes in cities directly impacted micromobility companies. But what should happen when all this is over and the circulation of people returns to normal?
The year 2020 began full of changes for the micromobility industry, where financial efficiency became the guiding principle. Not only for the sector, but for the entire shared mobility ecosystem, the era of growth at any cost seems to be over. In January, the main operators announced the closure of some markets and the restructuring of the teams.
The following months were not easy. With the consequences of the fast spread of the COVID19 virus in the main micromobility markets, companies have made considerable reductions in their operations. Many chose to suspend their operations, some with cuts to their teams. Bird, for example, has laid off 30% of its workforce, Voi has laid off more than half of its staff and Lime is considering laying off up to 70 people in San Francisco.
Grin, however, has been looking for other alternatives to layoffs, as long as possible. After halting its operations to apply the standards for combating the proliferation of viruses recommended by the World Health Organization, the company announced the creation of the monthly rental system called Grin4U.
The new business model is a quick response to the crisis in the sector and, above all, a transport option for citizens. An option free of contagion of COVID19 by agglomerations and physical contacts. “We want you to #StayHome, but for those who really need to go around, Grin is a safe option for individual mobility” is the message presented to people in the app. It is as the saying goes: 'necessity is the mother of invention'.
The industry has already proven itself capable of recovering from the most diverse difficulties suffered, such as wars, natural disasters, pandemics and others. In general, in the aftermath of a crisis, occasional losses are recovered and long-term growth is maintained. This is noticeable, for example, when observing the production of automobiles in the last century, during the Spanish Flu, the crisis of 1929 and the world wars, and even the crisis of 2008. The curve was constantly increasing, even taking into account the occasional losses, in a period when automobiles were treated as possible solutions for urban trips.
The micro-vehicle industry has been strengthening in recent years. Even with the slowdown that has occurred as a result of the quarantine period, it should recover when urban life returns to normal. The main idea is a long-term bet: it does not make sense for individual trips to be made in spacious, heavy and polluting vehicles every day in urban centers. It is this status quo that needs to be confronted and the solution will be efficient and cleaner transportation, such as public transport and manual or electric micro-vehicles.
Impacts on urban mobility
Some cities have already started to change for the better. Bogotá created more than 100 km of temporary bike lanes during the pandemic. Brussels and Milan are also taking advantage of this moment to improve the city by humanising the streets, through the implementation of traffic-calming or improvements in urban design.
In a survey carried out in Switzerland, all forms of transport had a relative drop in kilometres travelled until the third week of the seclusion period. From the fourth week onwards, only active forms started to grow again. In the fifth week, people were pedaling 70% more than average before the impact of COVID19.
Working from home was already being discussed, for example, as an option to save time, money and reduce stress, in addition to avoiding pollution and traffic. Even so, policies for doing so have made small progress in companies. Perhaps it is the ideal time to implement flexible home office policies, when possible, giving employees more quality of life, without losing productivity. All those hours lost in traffic could be better used by people, such as rest, personal relationships, physical activities and smaller and more pleasant trips within the neighbourhood.
It is not easy to predict the impacts of this pandemic beyond the quarantine period. Some people say, for example, that people will try to use their own individual transport more when all this is over, to avoid large crowds and interpersonal contacts.
Projections like these are based on true and relevant information, but they need to be contextualised. Public transport in large and medium-sized cities is not replaceable, much less if the alternatives are cars. There is no way to replace an option with the ability to move, for example, about 15 million people in a single day, as in the metropolitan region of São Paulo.
Public transport will continue to be of enormous importance in urban displacement, whether due to the lack of economically viable options or the collective conscience. And this fact does not reduce the importance of travels by bicycle, scooter and other micro-vehicles.
In its definition, micromobility refers to vehicles of human dimensions, with low emission of air and noise pollution, and responsible for small and medium routes, connected or not to public transport. In other words, in addition to the enormous potential for modal migration on shorter motorised journeys, micromobility has a complementary role on longer journeys, reinforcing its importance alongside public transport.
It is also important to mention that the sector still has a long way to go. New generations of micro-vehicles are increasingly adapting to system sharing, increasing safety against accidents and vandalism. Upon gaining scale, there will naturally be a reduction in manufacturing costs. This means that dockless micromobility systems will be even more secure and accessible in the near future.
It is possible, therefore, that the consequences of the pandemic are in changes aimed at improving the quality of life. And this has everything to do with the idea of a city for people, where active transport and electric micro-vehicles play a fundamental role.
Our expectations are for a strong recovery in the sector and a gradual recovery for the micro-mobility sector, once activities return to pre-quarantine levels.
The future of cities
Historian and professor Walter Scheidel, from Stanford University (USA), has mentioned that the human and economic impacts of the pandemic worldwide have the potential to positively affect one of the biggest problems in the world today: social inequality. Cities will not become more egalitarian with the increase in car travel, but with the improvement of public transport and with efficient and affordable transport alternatives, such as bicycles, e-scooters and all micro-vehicles.
The crisis situations makes us reflect on the fragility of human life and the quality in which we live our lives in society. Therefore, urban problems such as traffic mortality and air pollution tend to be evident. After this transition that we are going through, with the drastic reductions in the levels of atmospheric pollution and the probable reduction of deaths in the streets, the humanisation of cities should start to be seen as an essential point for what we want from now on. We will review our consumption habits and become more attached to the essentials, giving priority to good experiences instead of consumption through consumption.
Grin agrees with the analysis presented by the World Resources Institute - WRI: after this troubled period, there may be an “urgent need to make cities more resilient, equitable and low carbon. Who knows, the forced distance from urban dynamics also reflects the impact of mobility choices”. May this pandemic crisis help to make people aware of the importance of living in healthier environments. May this consolidate the importance of moving around the city with greater energy efficiency.
Micromobility will continue to consolidate itself in the urban environment as an alternative to automobiles and as part of the integrated system of public transport. This will be strengthened after the pandemic. Micromobility makes life simpler and more fun, allows us to see the city from an angle that automobiles do not, and brings back the feeling of belonging to the public space. The street belongs to everyone!
Full version of the article published in Estadão, on May 9, 2020