Smart Highways reporter Emma Greedy writes about the growing influence of the user on the market and considers the balance of power between passenger and transport authority in the new digital economy.
The Metro in Paris is what the Tube is to London. Efficient, yet unenjoyable. Convenient, but confined. So for those who wish to stay above ground in one of the world’s most romantic cities, alongside traditional public transport, a new form of micro mobility has entered the Paris scene and litters its beautiful streets. Bright green, electric scooters are an unmissable but haphazard addition to the city’s mobility. These electric scooters, or e-scooters, are owned by transportation rental company Lime.
Lime states that it is ‘reimagining smart mobility’ with its electric bikes and scooters, and that it believes all communities deserve access to smart, affordable mobility. The company is based in San Francisco, California and, along with Bird, has pioneered the shared and dockless electric scooter trend in the US. And now, it’s scooting on over to Europe.
Even European cities equipped with the best public transport are not immune to road congestion and traffic. This is when micro mobility steps in. The Mobility as a Service (MaaS) Alliance believes that as well as reducing traffic and solving other urban problems, micro mobility solutions can help to fill in the gaps in public transportation for millions of commuters.
The use of e-scooters in Paris is an apposite example of how users have become a transport authority of sorts; users now have control of mobility platforms, they create their own routes and request transportation in real-time. With this new found influence on travel, could users hold the same, if not more, power over the roads than transport authorities themselves? To use a Lime e-scooter you must download the app; only then will you be able to locate and rent a scooter. From then on, the user is responsible for the scooter’s maintenance, route and dockless return. A brief comment on the scooter’s dock-less feature – scooters are left around the city with gay (Paris) abandon, which makes the streets look as if they have been invaded by metal green machines, like some low budget Doctor Who episode.
As well as controlling how the scooter is used, users can choose future scooter locations. On Lime’s website, users are able to vote to ‘bring Lime to you’ by clicking a location on a world map. Lime’s e-scooters came to Paris on request – an example of users holding just as much, if not more, power than the Parisian government transport bodies.
Programme director at England’s Economic Heartland, Martin Tugwell, has weighed in on our transport system’s changing landscape and believes that the real-time information provided by apps is changing user behaviour on a daily basis. ‘Increasingly our choices are shaped by the algorithms that drive the apps we use, rather than the policies set out by a transport authority,’ says Mr Tugwell. ‘Change the algorithm and a company can change your routing, or influence your travel choice, in ways that we might not realise. The algorithm has become a transport policy operating in real-time, one controlled by the need to meet the aims and objectives of a company.’
Mobility choices and data sharing
Major transportation network Uber has included Lime on its app. Director for Uber UK Fred Jones spoke at an industry event about how the giant has integrated other service data onto its platform. Mr Jones argues that data sharing is an important part of creating a modal shift, and that by sharing travel data, transport authorities keep users connected and engaged. ‘I think having that choice is very important and competition is important. I don’t know whether there will be one transport authority or not but I think there will be some interesting models about different partners working together,’ says Mr Jones. We’ve seen the sharing of data on mobility platforms for some time now – Waze’s crowd sourced real-time GPS data, car-sharing on Drivy, Uber’s driver network for instance. Could it be that mobility data sharing has replaced a role previously held by a transport authority? Urban Movement is an architectural design company that works to improve streets and public spaces. Its director, John Dales, thinks that London and mayor Sadiq Khan’s ongoing tribulations with Uber are an interesting example of the debate about who’s in charge. ‘TfL [Transport for London] are currently having to play catch up, having not acted early enough to define the regulatory playing field on which Uber and others should compete,’ he says. While Uber has temporarily had its licence renewed, its future in the city is still in the balance, making for a rather difficult ‘relationship’ between the transport network and TfL. London is by no means the only city that has had issues with Uber.
The role of micro mobility within cities
Copenhagen-based SFMCON is an independent management consulting company for smart mobility and MaaS. Founder Søren Sørensen works to provide solutions that will allow seamless journeys combining the use of both public and privately operated vehicles. Mr Sørensen feels that micro mobility within a city can more often than not be the quickest form of transport, and for that reason, perhaps one of the most efficient. He refers to Copenhagen as a city that has embraced micro mobility with open arms; of those who ride bikes, 56% of them say that they chose to as they believe that it is the quickest mode of transport. Mr Sørensen also gave his opinion on micro mobility’s ability to fashion its users into transport authorities. While he reasons that user adoption is key to the success of any privately funded micro mobility scheme, he believes that it is too early to call micro mobility a ‘winner’. ‘Users may sign up to an e-scooter scheme for the fun ride, but will e-scooters have staying power as a means of city mobility?’ Mr Sørensen asks.
Cog in a wheel?
Perhaps users have yet to become the authority itself but their use of real-time mobility apps has contributed towards it. They play a significant role in how transportation companies like Lime operate – able to influence the availability of new mobility, as well as its integration into city culture. When the user requests a car, bike or scooter, it arrives at the user’s convenience. With a choice of multiple mobility options at their fingertips, the ability to re-route a journey and even bring a service to a city – users have indeed been granted more control than ever before. However, both Mr Dales and Mr Tugwell also express a note of caution at the prospect of users becoming the authority. Mr Dales states that while the more individual users do the same thing, the greater their combined ’authority’ may be, the public highway still needs a thoughtful ‘controlling mind’. Similarly, Mr Tugwell feels user-formed authority over transportation may risk opportunities to secure more fundamental change in travel patterns and that travel demands are missed. He reasons that a collaborative partnership where the transport authority provides leadership and advancement would be the optimal form of authority. While it is still the role of the transport authority to regulate and develop, it can no longer claim to be the sole power involved in the advancement of transportation. The introduction of mobility apps, data sharing and micro mobility has undeniably changed user transportation behaviours. For the moment, the user seems to have been placed in the metaphorical driver’s seat.