The Three Eras of Micromobility: Part 2, Cultural Contrasts

On-demand mobility began in Europe but on-demand electric mobility began in the US. The electric, thumb throttle, push-scooter to be precise was first deployed in sunny Santa Monica by Bird using a consumer product developed in China. 

It was not a “eureka” type product. It was based on components previously used in “hover boards” and other consumer electronics. It was not a specific invention which is why there is little protectable intellectual property in the vehicle.

In fact, some of the pioneering engineering was on the Segway design many years earlier. And Segway IP ended up being owned by one of the larger scooter companies (Ninebot). The IP isn’t really applicable, so even that was tangentially interesting.

In reality, the components in a shared scooter were commoditized enough by 2018 to be inexpensive and thus the cost of the vehicle would be low enough to be worth risking on a city street.

The pioneers in on-demand micromobility, Europe and China did not see the value of scooters because they had existing cycling cultures. Cycling was the countercultural alternative to a car and, in any case, motorized push scooters were not designed for street use. They were worse than bikes. They were, in fact, illegal in Europe for on-road use. The scooter competed with non-automotive consumption, while in the US it competed with non-automotive non-consumption.

In other words, the combination of a cultural automotive alternative and rigid regulation on motorized vehicles meant that there was no demand for what the scooter offered. 

To understand this better it’s useful to look at the enabling technologies for micromobility:

1. Miniature, cheap electric motors 

2. Lithium Ion batteries

3. GPS

4. Smartphones

5. Market-making software.

None of these were initially developed for micromobility.

- Small motors were primarily for automotive applications. Most cars now have window lift motors, seat adjust motors and power steering assist e-motors.

- Lithium-ion batteries were developed for consumer electronics first, laptops second, smartphones third and electric cars fourth. Micromobility is a late application.

- GPS also was developed for military first, automotive satellite navigators second and consumer smartphones third.

- Finally, smartphones were communication products first and entertainment products second.  Transportation applications came quite late in the life of the technology. 

- The market-making mechanism for on-demand transportation was put forward through the ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft well before Bird and Lime.

Since these individual technologies were for separate applications and since there was no singular micromobility “invention” one could not ask for a permit, or license to operate. It did not go through the process of “homologation” in order to be accepted. It was not a “directed technology” born out of studies, research, planning or budgeting processes.

Micromobility emerged as a “hack” or an amalgamation of various ideas, components, techniques and tricks. It could be said it was “cheating” and sneaking into infrastructures not designed for it. It was a “bottom-up” idea.

Culturally this did not fit in many worlds.

Micromobility scooter operators, acting first and asking questions later, went where they could get away with it. That, paradoxically, was the U.S. California in particular.

With the idea taking root, much confusion followed: Should this idea be banned? Should it be controlled? Does the idea shed light on other inequities?

These are all cultural questions, and fundamentally, transportation and culture are deeply linked. What micromobility has done, at least, in its short existence, is throw light on our invisible assumptions about transportation. On car dependency. On parking subsidies. On vast over-service of automobility. On bundling of trips in one big metal box.

But didn’t the smartphone do just the same thing? On communications, entertainment and social constructs? And before that the personal computer?

The essential quality of a transformative technology is that it shows us who we are. It is a mirror and a lens.

So the answers to these questions will come from cultural norms. From individual decisions and institutional decisions. The degree and speed of adoption will be moderated.

But the resulting outcome is not in doubt for me. It just makes too much sense and the idea is too good. The users are too satisfied and the alternatives are too unbearable.

Part 1 here. It started in America, but it’s fast spreading throughout Europe in 2019—Join us in Berlin Oct 1st.

Horace Dediu