Solving for the first/last mile: micro-mobility looks to bridge city transportation gaps

Solving for the first/last mile: micro-mobility looks to bridge city transportation gaps

Spring 2019 | Written by Kiley Jacques

“You can’t deny that people are eager for different options, and that’s why the transportation industry at large is such an interesting one to focus on right now—so much change is happening.”
— Will Nicholas, executive vice president of operations at Bolt Mobility

A drone’s-eye view of the 65 U.S. cities experiencing a rapid influx of new “mobility services” would reveal streets lined with shared bikes and scooters vying to become an integral part of the mass transit system. In the last two years, new transportation technology has exploded in cities around the world—20 million dockless bikes in China, thousands of electric push scooters plying the streets (and sidewalks) of Los Angeles, dockless e-bikes in Washington, D.C., and motor scooters across Europe.

In the U.S., dockless IoT-enabled e-bikes and scooters are competing to fill the long-standing first/last-mile transportation gap—the beginning or end of an individual trip made primarily by public transportation. Lime—a privately owned bike/scooter/car-sharing company launched in January 2017—reports that its top urban markets see 40 percent of trips starting or ending at public transit hubs. It also claims a 25 percent increase in bike-share trips in 2017. Key findings from a Fort Lauderdale pilot program launched by the Bolt Mobility Corporation in October 2018 include: 215,084 total rides, 309,264 total miles, 3,961 unique riders, and 4.7 rides per scooter per day. And in its 2018 E-Scooter Findings Report, the Portland Bureau of Transportation cites 700,369 trips covering 801,887 miles on 2,043 e-scooters.

All that is to say, carbon-free urban mobility is gaining momentum.

Will Nicholas is the executive vice president of operations at Bolt Mobility headquartered in Miami, Florida.

Evaluating the potential

In October 2018, Arlington County, Virginia—an urban mobility leader and co-founder of Capital Bikeshare—launched a nine-month Shared Mobility Devices (SMDs) pilot program, the goal of which is to evaluate how new technologies and services might advance the county’s transportation goals to make the community better, safer, and more sustainable. In response to the unfettered way in which private e-scooter companies have been landing in cities without government permits or consent, Arlington decided to take a proactive approach to studying the impacts of SMDs—defined as pedal bikes, electric-assist bikes (e-bikes), and electric-assist scooters (e-scooters) that do not require a docking station—on the public transportation system. “We like to think we have taken a balanced look at this. We are not for or against the scooters; we want to evaluate them,” says Jim Larsen, bureau chief for Arlington County Commuter Services and pilot program lead.

The county approved seven permits for privately owned and operated e-scooter fleets. Each were required to pay $8,000 to be part of the program, and they are limited to 350 devices—unless they can demonstrate an average of three rides per day per scooter, in which case they are allowed to add another 50 scooters to their fleet. Larsen notes that operators regularly pitch their product as the solution to the first/last-mile problem.

Arlington County, Virginia, has developed a demonstration project to provide structure to the operation and use of SMDs within the county and to learn how the technologies and services help to advance the county’s transportation goals of making the community safer and more sustainable.

A number of questions are on the table to help the county determine how people are using SMDs: Are they getting off Metro transit, seeing scooters, and opting to take them? Are they not finding them and using Uber or Lyft instead? Are scooters available but not taken? Are people using scooters to ride the mile they used to walk? Though the program is young, there are some immediate sticking points.

“E-scooters have a lot of issues that we are learning about as we go along,” says Larsen. “They sit low to the ground so they aren’t as visible to drivers, they have a propensity to blow over, and they aren’t currently found in any formalized set of locations. . . We try to address things we didn’t anticipate in the Memorandum of Agreement [with each competing company]. For example, we are very concerned about underage riders, so we have asked that operators not place scooters near schools.”

Arlington’s dockless approach to SMDs is more cost efficient than traditional docking stations, which require greater capital investment. However, it does present some logistical challenges in terms of where to put SMDs. In lieu of docking stations, corrals are being eked out of right-of-way spots too small for cars, which Larsen sees as low-cost infrastructure in need of further exploration.

As the pilot program ramps up for spring, Larsen has more questions than answers: If we continue to allow the use of e-scooters, how do we enforce the rules and regulations and what are the associated costs? How do we educate the public about scooters on the road? Can we place e-scooters near bike-docking stations so people can easily move from one modality to another? What are the total fiscal needs to support continued use? How do we keep users from leaving scooters in inappropriate places? Even though they are dockless devices, could a private developer station e-devices on his/her property? Can all of these operators survive?

He does, nonetheless, see the potential—particularly given that the county is nearing completion of an updated master plan for its bike lane system. He anticipates that the lessons learned from this pilot program will help inform and finalize that plan by pinpointing the infrastructure needed to support SMDs. He also foresees getting an extension so the program can continue running while findings are reviewed.

Bolt’s mission is to redesign city mobility around the world with smart, safe, and sustainable transportation solutions. Their zero emissions scooters are designed to last for at least two years with parts that are interchangeable including the battery.

Sharing the streets

Will Nicholas, executive VP of operations for Bolt Mobility Corporation, views e-scooters as a complement to other modalities of which he says there can’t be enough. Pointing to the behavior of Millennials staying in densely populated urban centers—not just major cities but also midsize and small cities—rather than moving out to suburban neighborhoods as prior generations once did, he says: “They are less interested in owning vehicles, which they know contribute to carbon emissions and global climate change and are a depreciating asset that they aren’t going to use that much because [alternative] options are becoming more prevalent.” He names Lyft and Uber as among them but notes that car- and ride-sharing services can be an expensive means for getting to work. “I think that’s why people are so interested in—and the adoption rates show it—electric bikes and scooters.”

Bolt Mobility designs and manufactures app-accessed e-scooters intended to be a green, inexpensive, reliable, and flexible mode of transit for bridging the first/last-mile gap. Its Fort Lauderdale scooters have been on the road since October 2018. In that market more than 300,000 people rode a scooter in the first two months (compared to 40,000 rides in the first three years of a West Palm Beach bike-share program). Nicholas says many trips originate in the western suburbs, which are just outside of public transportation access. The scooters are being ridden downtown and to the beach in the mornings and late afternoons, returning in the evenings. “The people we’ve interviewed have said this is a great way for them to get to work—and that taking a car is cost-prohibitive.” Additionally, as a tourist town, parking rates are overblown.
Nicholas explains that some permit applications require a certain percentage of scooters be designated for transportation deserts, which are typically in low-income, minority-majority communities. The hope is that those mobility devices will enable people in those districts to access other forms of transportation that can get them to work, school, medical facilities, libraries, parks, and other local amenities.

Like Arlington County, Bolt is analyzing e-scooter usage to determine if scooters are replacing cars. They are collecting data to determine average trip duration, distance, and frequency. The company is also making a marketing push to highlight their product’s good environmental sense. “We need to amplify the fact that these scooters are, in many ways, taking cars off the street in places they don’t need to be,” Nicholas says, pointing to the example of multistory residences in dense urban locations. “If every resident in a multifamily unit has a car, that’s a problem.”

Bolt is positioning its scooters in major transportation thoroughfares and arteries. “In theory, people will take these scooters instead of another transport option that burns carbon and contributes to the global climate change epidemic we are facing,” Nicholas says. “If you take into consideration the fact that a third of the carbon emissions produced by this country come from individual transport devices like cars, then if you can eliminate a third or half of them, it’s going to make a big difference.”

Nicholas stresses reliability as key to the long-term success of e-scooters. “Unless you can compel someone that this option is going to be available to them every day, rain or shine, hot or cold, for years to come, they are going to buy a car. That is why we have doubled down on investing in the design of our scooters.” They are in the R&D phase of models with storage and features to make riders comfortable for longer distances. Their aim is to make scooters the “go-to mode of transport.”

Bolt, Bird, Lime, and other startups have gained traction in cities from Atlanta to Seattle. Now, with big names like Uber, Lyft, and Ford entering an acquisitions phase, the U.S. micromobility market could be worth $300 billion by 2030 according to a McKinsey analysis.*
* Micromobility’s 15,000-mile checkup. January, 2019.

Reimagining the car

Jeff Lindley, associate executive director and chief technical officer for the Institute of Transportation Engineers, talks about a “shared electric autonomous future.” He says in transportation circles, there are ongoing conversations about the types and numbers of vehicles and devices needed to solve the first/last-mile problem. In addition to scooter- and bike-share programs, he and his colleagues imagine shared autonomous electric cars as the next frontier for connecting people to traditional transportation services.

“The primary reason people give for not being able to use public transportation is that on one end or another there is a gap, which they fill with a car, so they might as well just drive the entire distance,” Lindley explains. “They see it as easier to drive than to change modes.”

Lindley lists the benefits associated with shared autonomous electric cars: reduced carbon emissions, less congestion, and a decreased need for parking. However, he notes that ubiquitous deployment is necessary to reap those benefits. For him, safety is the draw. “The safety benefits in and of themselves are significant enough to justify investment and use of autonomous vehicles. Under the lion’s share of circumstances, they won’t crash.”

Asked how cities will be different with the addition of autonomous vehicles to the pool of transportation options, Lindley responds: Really the question is how will they be different when all of our vehicles are autonomous. Of course, that remains to be seen. He predicts that scenario is 30-plus years away.

Future potential of shared e-wheels

Multimodal transportation is promising for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programs for cities and communities—which measure and track sustainability outcomes based on 14 key metrics. Early data suggests that app-accessed devices like shared dockless bikes and scooters could factor into the transportation metrics. Carbon savings appear to be one of the biggest foreseeable gains. And results of a recent Virginia Tech study suggest that shared e-devices could also address issues of social equity. The data demonstrated dockless mobility systems in Washington, D.C., have increased access to transit by lower income people, racial minorities, and women. Of course, getting people out of cars arguably improves a population’s health and well-being, too. It could be that multimodal e-transportation services will reach far beyond the first/last-mile gap.

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