Honey, we shrunk the car: the rise of micro mobility

Ten years ago the only people on a London street using scooters would have been the under fives, many with parents tugging them along on brightly coloured leashes. But step out in the Square Mile today and you can find besuited, middle-aged businesspeople, food delivery riders, youngsters ‒ basically anyone except those who are frail or bringing in heavy freight ‒ rolling themselves along in the manner of an early 2010s toddler.

Welcome to the micro-mobility boom. As jargon goes, the term “micro mobility” is both ugly and uninspiring, but it’s useful as it allows its fans ‒ of which there are a growing number ‒ to refer to everything with an electric motor that isn’t a typical car, van or lorry.

While every other kind of transport use has fallen since the pandemic, the trend for smaller vehicles is soaring. E-bikes are the fastest growing category, now representing 30 per cent of all cycles sold in the UK, while e-scooters, on trial in about 30 UK cities, have also proved incredibly popular. Londoners took more than half a million rides on the latter in 2021 alone.

Many more tiny vehicles are coming too. Last year saw Italian microcar brand Biró launch in London with a small electric car you can drive with a moped licence at a top speed of 28mph, and the slightly tougher looking Citroen Ami launches this year with the same benefits. Enrico Howe, researcher at forecaster Invers, predicts a wave of e-mopeds and bike hybrids (already popular in India, Indonesia and Turkey) launching this year, too.

While some of these vehicles are new, many have their roots in older ideas about transport. The Sinclair C5 was technically a forerunner of the new microcars, as was Reva’s G-Wiz. But while both these cars were loathed and derided for a lack of speed and space, the new micro models are eagerly awaited ‒ so much so that thousands of TikTokers tag their friends in brand videos ahead of launches. What’s changed?

“The point about micro mobility is that it isn’t just new ways of filling bike lanes,” says Iain Borden, professor of architecture and urban culture at the Bartlett School of Architecture. “It’s about the human body, a simple piece of technology and everything the city has to offer. It’s like a hand, a pencil and a piece of paper – the potential is huge. It opens up a city where travel isn’t only to work or shop, but a place to play and enjoy.”

Research shows that members of Gen Z view cars ‘like appliances’ rather than status symbols

It largely seems to come down to a notable shift in the way the younger generations see cars, not as status symbols but as commodities. Even before the pandemic a US study from Allison+Partners had shown that, unlike Baby Boomers, members of Gen Z view cars “like appliances… as just a means of transport”, rather than as attached to their identities. The social currency attached to motoring has been passed on to the concept of mobility: a more flexible and ecofriendly mode of transport that suits young urbanites.

Car ownership has been falling in the UK for the past 20 years as Millennials and Gen Z are far less interested in having a driving licence than comparatively gas-guzzling Boomers, and this looks set to continue. Researchers at the Transport Studies Unit at Oxford University crunched census data and national travel surveys to find that the year of peak driving licence ownership for under 29s was 1993. By 2019, just over 60 per cent of 20-29-year-olds had a licence, compared with more than 80 per cent of people over 40.

“As young adults have moved into their 30s, the proportion with driving licences and the amount they drive has increased, but not so much that their car use has caught up with that seen in previous cohorts,” according to Dr Georgina Santos at Cardiff University, who worked on the research.

But while younger people are certainly leading the way when it comes to bike, e-bike and e-scooter hire, Richard Beech, co-founder of e-scooter, e-bike and e-skateboard store Electroheads, says Gen X is catching on, too. “Hire bikes and scooters skew younger but our biggest buyers are in their 40s and 50s,” he explains.

Anecdotal evidence from London’s scooter-hire scheme seconds this, with more older people choosing to ride rather than drive their short commutes. There’s now even a scooter aimed at elderly riders: the Zinc Venture Folding e-scooter has a top speed of 15.5mph and a seat for those who wish to ride in increased comfort.

“We need clear safety rules on novel transport like e-scooters”

As micro mobility continues to rise and all generations enjoy the significant benefits in a way to cut out road tax, emissions and parking issues, there are some practical considerations. In London, e-bikes can legally be used in cycle lanes, but e-scooters are still technically illegal to ride on London roads and pavements except on private land, and the legal grey area surrounding e-mopeds also has some people worried.

Josh Cottell, research manager at thinktank Centre for London, says the Government needs to regulate and invest in micro mobility and the necessary infrastructure to ensure we can use these relatively fragile vehicles safely. “We need investment in segregated cycle lanes, parking and charging at offices, supermarkets and so on, as well as clear safety rules on novel transport like e-scooters,” he says.

While European cities show e-scooters to be a relatively safe form of transport – only seven deaths have been recorded from 460 million km of travel across 29 European countries – Cottell and Beech both suggest legal limits on speed.

Regulation is increasingly important as micro mobility isn’t restricted to light consumer bikes – there are fleet and cargo uses already in play in the city. Last year Amazon launched its first micro mobility hub in central London, with a target of one million deliveries a year using e-cargo bikes and walkers (aka pedestrians) instead of vans. Amazon UK country manager John Boumphrey said the company was aiming for zero-carbon deliveries to help hit its net-zero carbon target by 2040.

Volt, the UK e-bike maker, is offering delivery trailers attached to its bikes that can carry up to 90kg and recently completed a trial with a central London NHS trust offering staff the use of an e-bike for a month to monitor how they’d use it. “Nurses were the keenest users,” Volt managing director James Metcalfe explains. “They used the bike for home visits instead of using cars or public transport, managed three or four more home visits a day and enjoyed the journeys more.”

Ultimately, says New London Architecture co-founder Peter Murray, by monitoring the way we use these new vehicles, the roll out of micro mobility hasn’t just got the potential to change the way we drive, it could make our cities smarter, too. “At the moment ULEZ and the congestion charge are clunky tools,” he explains. “When you have proper smart road use you can have pricing that’s very specific – paying for particular areas and zones and different times depending on vehicles. It also means cyclists and pedestrians can be identified in the way cars can. Technology can create additional control in a smart city so we can all give due consideration to other road users.”

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