Micromobility: size doesn’t matter
2 February, 2021
Shared mobility services are unquestionably considered a unique urban mobility option in major European cities. In most of these cities, inhabitants can choose from a large panel of shared vehicles (scooters, bikes & cargo bikes, mopeds, and cars), making it a perfect complement to public transports.
But shared mobility services should not remain a privilege of big cities. Of course, the model cannot be fully replicated from Berlin (GER, 3.7M inh.) to Ingolstadt (GER, 137,000 inh.). But if stakeholders manage to identify the local needs and specificities, sustainable shared mobility options can also flourish in cities under 200,000 inhabitants. Let’s try to identify the key factors of success in medium-sized cities.
Nota : in this article, “big cities” will refer to cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants whereas “medium-sized cities” will designate cities from 100,000 to 200,000 inhabitants.
Can it work with all types of vehicles?
Analysing data from 70 cities monitored by fluctuo, we can estimate the presence of the different vehicle types, depending on the size of the city.
Shared scooters are available in 81% of big cities … and in 85% of medium-sized cities. Trends follow different paths for other vehicle types. If shared bikes, mopeds, and cars are all available in 40 to 50% of big cities, the proportion decreases with the vehicle size.
One explanation is the lower CAPEX required to launch small vehicles, especially e-scooters. It makes it a flexible and low-risk service (whatever the city size). The perfect match for a medium-sized city or small local operator willing to test a shared mobility option! Launching a car-sharing service, where 1 vehicle costs as much as 35 e-scooters, requires a huge investment that can hardly be made by local operators.
Another aspect to consider is the operational complexity which grows with the size of the vehicle. Would it be for the vehicle’s maintenance or its battery management, one does not require the same level of experience and expertise when you compare a fleet of e-scooters with swappable batteries, and a fleet of e-cars with fixed ones, and tens of thousands of components.
A disparate situation among European countries
On the European market, the situation can vary greatly from one country to another. Shared micromobility options are scarce in medium-sized cities in France, Spain or Portugal. In France, shared scooters services are available in Perpignan (FRA — 201,000 inhab.) and Dijon (FRA — 195,000 inhab.). One might nonetheless find some local services with little advertising, such as Bik’air, an e-bike sharing company actually focusing on medium-sized cities, operating its main projects with 100 bikes in Nevers (FRA — 35,000 inhab.).
Italy, on the opposite, hosts several active local operators such as Bit Mobility or Helbiz for e-scooters, which are accelerating launches across the country. Bit Mobility operates 19 services, 70% being in medium-sized cities. Many services are available in highly touristic areas (Pisa, Rimini area…) with an important seasonality, but also in Bergamo (121,000 inhab.), Taranto (195,000 inhab.) or Lecce (95,000 inhab.). Bike-share operator Movi also provides services in Reggio Emilia (172,000 inhab.), Ferrara (135,000 inhab.), Mantova (50,000 inhab.), and in the touristic sites of Caorle or Venice.
Germany is also a good example, with Tier setting the pace. The operator is active with e-scooters in around 50 cities in its home country, from Berlin (3.7M inh.), Hamburg (1.8M inh.) or Munich (1.5M inh.)… to Gütersloh (100,000 inh.), Kaiserslautern (100,000 inh.) or Herford (65,000 inh.). But German medium-sized cities also host an important number of shared mopeds services, operated by local companies: NERO in Norden (25,000 inh.), meli in Meppen (35,000 inh.) and Lingen (54,000 inh.), Hero in Detmold (75,000 inh.) or Moritz in Bruchsal (45,000 inh.). All of them are operating a few dozens of mopeds in these small urban areas.
In the UK, where shared e-scooters have been recently authorized under pilot programs, many medium-sized cities took advantage of this opening. Barnstaple (20,000 inh.), Redditch (78,000 inh.), Bath (90,000 inh.) or Yeovil (45,000 inh.) have all embraced this new transport option, faster than bigger cities that face longer decision-making processes. As shared micromobility expert Oliver O’Brien states: “Political complexity has held back large cities, London being the perfect example. Medium-sized cities also used the situation to get attention, at no cost”. London’s e-scooter sharing RFP is actually defining the local landscape, smaller projects being used as a showcase of operator’s abilities. “If major foreign operators such as Tier, Bird or Spin do not get licenses to operate in London, they might exit the UK market” according to Oliver O’Brien.
With the exception of the UK where the situation is unique, the development of shared mobility services in medium-sized cities relies on local operators able to provide a sustainable service thanks to their knowledge of the specificities and needs in these territories. Movi or Bit Mobility in Italy, Tier in Germany, are all developing tailor-made projects in their home countries.
What are the challenges for operators?
Some operators are specifically targeting small and medium-sized cities. Damian Young, CEO of Zeus, an Irish company operating 3-wheeler scooters, believes that “large cities such as Berlin are overserved with micromobility services’’. The company is therefore willing to “offer a service for all citizens, as a complement of public transport options, in tier 2 and 3 cities”. Being involved locally, understanding the local mobility needs, are key aspects for the development of the services in such cities. Damian Young highlights the example of Wolfsburg (GER — 175,000 inh.), where Zeus managed to convince city’s authorities to trial e-scooters after years of refusal, thanks to regular meetings after the opening of a local office.
Operating a shared mobility service in a medium-sized city has many consequences from the operator’s point of view. First of all, most are adopting a hub-based policy, making it mandatory to end the ride in designated parking zones. Operational teams do not have to cross the city to find a single abandoned vehicle but are only going from one zone to the next to charge and maintain a batch of vehicles. In the UK, Oliver O’Brien confirms that “all the 17 services with under 80 e-scooters, operated by Beryl, Ginger, Zwings, and Zypp follow a marked hub policy”.
Using hubs implies answering a tricky equation: finding the balance between concentrating the vehicles, and giving access to it within 5 minutes walk for the riders. Operators have to play with the fleet size, and quantity and location of the hubs that require a deep understanding of the local travel patterns. The implementation of multimodal hubs can allow mutualising some operational costs between operators while encouraging intermodality with public transports when vehicles are located close to major train, metro, or bus stations.
Major operators’ experiences in large cities have helped to build a sustainable operational model that can easily be adapted to medium-sized cities. Nicolas Gorse, GM for France and Belgium at Dott, confirms that those cities are also a target for Dott : “With our experience in Bordeaux (where a fleet cap of 100 e-scooters per operator is in place), we managed to build a financially sustainable model even with such a small fleet and high competition”. Dott is also operating in Namur (BEL — 110,000 inhab.) and Liège (BEL — 195,000 inhab.), using its warehouse in Brussels as a regional one. “The e-scooters reliability and robustness increase means that very few vehicles require to be brought to Brussels for important repairs. First level maintenance can now easily be done on field with one operator for a couple of hundred scooters.” Zeus operates under the same model in several German cities: “What we call the “hub and spokes” model offer high flexibility. Our staff can focus on some cities with higher ridership, or on specific maintenance tasks at the main warehouse during winter”. But even when it is operated in isolated medium-sized cities, operators are exploring ways to operate sustainably.
Medium-sized cities have to make do with budget restrictions. So most of them will welcome the opportunity to offer a new mobility option to their inhabitants at no cost (and sometimes for a profit, thanks to license fees). If you compare it to the launch of a new bus line for exemple, shared mobility options offer an unbeatable business model. E-scooters have emphasized these advantages, with a lower CAPEX and its ease of implementation and operation.
But with the exception of shared cars, other types of vehicles have also found a way to launch and stay in medium-sized cities. The example of shared mopeds in Germany or shared e-scooters and bikes in Italy show that local operators, who have a deep understanding of the local mobility landscape, can offer sustainable services even in cities under 50,000 inhabitants. The new generation of vehicles (featuring swappable batteries) could be the key to lowering dramatically operational costs. This could open new horizons to shared mobility operators in medium-sized cities.