The COVID Crisis and Micromobility

This blog post kicks off a month of coverage focused on micromobility – check back tomorrow for a new journal article on micromobility laws nationwide!

A few weeks ago I wrote about how COVID-19 has disrupted the ridesharing industry, with Lyft and Uber struggling to find their place in our changing world. Those same disruptions have sent ripples through the various bikeshare and e-scooter services that make up the micromobility industry, though that segment of the greater mobility ecosystem may be better positioned to continue functioning during the ongoing pandemic.

First, the bad news – earlier in the pandemic, both Lime and Bird, major e-scooter operators, laid off staff, with Lime shedding 13% of its workforce and Bird laying off a full 30%. Part of this was due to the companies suspending some service in the face of the pandemic. In May, a huge number of bikes owned by JUMP, a Lime-owned dockless bikeshare service, were shown being destroyed in videos posted to social media.

Yet at the same time as those JUMP bikes were being destroyed, the U.S. found itself in the middle of a major bicycle shortage. Even now, months into the pandemic, bike producers are struggling to keep up with demand, though industry leaders acknowledge that they were very lucky to dodge the business losses they originally had feared as the pandemic began. Bicycles represent a convenient means of mobility, and as city dwellers sought to avoid public transit, they turned to their bikes to get them where they need to go. Indeed, in New York City, bike riding increased over 50% across the city’s bridges in March as the weather improved. Likewise, also in March, the city’s docked bikeshare, Citi Bike, saw a 67% increase in demand.

That last number is very interesting to me – even at some of the darkest points of New York’s outbreak, people were still flocking to use bikeshare. Indeed, of all the modes of mobility, micromobility seems the most pandemic-proof. To ride carefully all you really need to do is wipe the scooter or bike’s handlebars down, or generously sanitize/wash your hands after your ride. One company, Wheels, has even released rentable e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars! And, of course, don’t forget your mask, which frankly could improve the ride experience as it shields your face from the wind. I’ll admit that other than my car, a Spin scooter is the only form of transportation I’ve used since the pandemic began – and I would consider myself more paranoid about COVID exposure than the majority of people.

Across the globe cycling and micromobility are a vital lifeline for people to traverse cities, and have proven to be more resilient than other modes of transport in the face of disasters – as seen in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake. I’ve written in the past about how cities are changing in the face of the pandemic, and stronger investment in the infrastructure to support micromobility and cycling needs to be a part of those changes.

So what can the micromobility industry itself do to encourage consumers to use their services, especially those who can’t afford for get their hands on a bike of their own? As often is the case in the mobility space (or at least our coverage of the space…) Michigan offers a potential path forward. At the end of June, the City of Detroit announced a new pilot program to connect essential workers with affordable e-bikes and scooters. In this case, two micromobility providers, Spin and MoGo, along with GM, leased scooters and e-bikes to the employees of hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, and manufactures – but only to those employees living within 6 miles of their workplace. Here, micromobility companies are getting their vehicles into the hands of people who need them the most – and giving them a reliable new way to get to work. While far from a full solution to the companies’ woes, it shows that they can reach customers while also providing a public service.