Why micromobility needs to be a priority

Voi’s head of sustainability Sarah Badoux tells Rebecca Morley why city planning needs to focus on active travel

How best to move around our cities has long been a focus for governments and local authorities, even more so recently following a shift in travel habits during the pandemic.

Many campaigners have long called for a move away from car-centric mobility, hoping that politicians will implement change that will see a permanent shift in behaviour. The benefits of sustainable transport are clear, from helping people stay fit and healthy through exercise to reducing pollution and congestion thanks to fewer cars on our roads. 

Equality issue
“Noise pollution causes stress and anxiety, and congestion leads to loss of productivity,” Voi’s Sarah Badoux told BikeBiz at November’s Move 21 conference in London.

“It’s also a huge equality issue because the communities that bear the burden of these things tend to be lower economic groups, they’re the ones that are exposed to air pollution, and a lot of congestion and noise.” Instead of having a two-tonne vehicle transporting a person, Badoux said we should be looking at modes that are more efficient, such as bikes, walking and public transport. 

“What we need to do is make all of these alternatives more attractive to users, to really foster that mode shift away from private cars onto shared modes and lighter modes,” she said. “That’s what we’re working everyday to do, and it takes a lot of work. The private sector can’t solve this alone. We need strong governance, like the ULEZ in London.”

London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone expanded last October from central London up to the North and South Circular roads and, despite some sentiment against it, Badoux said it’s this type of leadership from the public sector and local authorities that is needed to make unpopular decisions for the common good. It’s these decisions that will improve quality of life and extend life expectancy, that will make our cities fairer and healthier, Badoux argued. 

Behaviour changes
The UN climate change conference COP26 took place towards the end of last year, with a declaration published on accelerating the transition to 100% zero emission cars and vans. “As governments, we will work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission by 2040 or earlier, or by no later than 2035 in leading markets,” the declaration began, but there were initially concerns that there was no mention of committing to active travel.

A final paragraph was added at the last minute, which read: “We recognise that alongside the shift to zero emission vehicles, a sustainable future for road transport will require wider system transformation, including support for active travel, public and shared transport, as well as addressing the full value chain impacts from vehicle production, use and disposal.”

Badoux said: “I’m really excited to see so many people talking about the electrification of mobility, but actually COP was talking a lot more about the electrification of cars. “Bikes, walking, e-scooters and micromobility are what we need to be pushing. We need to be pushing behaviour changes. We need to be pushing a new paradigm of how we move around cities. 

“I’m all for electrifying cars, but you can electrify all cars and still have congestion and unequal access to green spaces. There are still a lot of issues around car-centric mobility, whether they’re electric or not.”

E-scooter trials
Regulation allowing trials of rental e-scooters in the UK came into force on 4th July 2020, with many operators quickly setting up schemes. Voi’s e-scooters and e-bikes are available in several cities across the UK, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Northampton, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, Portsmouth and Southampton.

“We’re seeing tremendous uptake in our British cities,” Badoux said. “There is a really high utilisation for our vehicles which does indicate that there is appetite and interest. We need to have trials where there is an adequate number of scooters and an adequate operation size, and that’s what we’ve been struggling with in some areas of the UK.

“If there is a city of 300,000 people that only has a few hundred scooters on the road, you can’t expect the same benefits as a service that really was reliable, where people know they can find a scooter when they need it and get to where they need to go. We’re also trying to solve the issue of parking. One of the things I keep seeing is that cities are giving pedestrian space to micromobility.”

Space should instead be reallocated from cars to more sustainable modes, Badoux said. “In the beginning, people are obviously going to be a bit upset because they can’t park their cars, but once we make the infrastructure around these modes safer, that’s where we’re going to get the behaviour change. 

“If it’s easy to drive, and that’s what we’ve done with car-centric urban planning, then of course, that’s what people will choose. We really need strong leadership and politicians to drive this change.”

Paradigm shift
Looking forward, we need more protected space, continues Badoux. This is especially important to encourage those who may otherwise be reluctant to take up active travel.
“We do see that micromobility is a bit more gender-equal than traditional cycling most times,” says Badoux, “but we still have more men than women using our service. One of the main barriers for more women and other groups is safety.    We need safe infrastructure – cycling lanes and space to park the scooters. 

“A study by the International Transport Forum showed that 80% of serious accidents on a bike or an e-scooter involves a car. It’s the cars that are making these modes unsafe. Sometimes you do need a car, but it should be a shared car, and it shouldn’t take up all the space. It should be a car that’s going slowly so it doesn’t present a threat to the more sustainable and active modes.

“We need a paradigm shift in city planning. Even today, when there’s a new building built, usually there’s still a criteria around how many parking spots. But you need space to park the bike, you need green space so the community can get to know each other and kids can play outside.

“The Clean Cities Campaign did a survey where 82% of people living in cities in Europe, including in the UK, said they want more green spaces. We really need to know that this is possible, but again, we’re going to need strong leadership from our politicians and our elected officials to give us space to let these changes be made. 

“We’re calling for proper regulation but it’s not going to happen from one day to the next. We need to go through this process together and take bold action to transform these cities and make them fairer and healthier places for everyone to live.”

In other news…

Conversion kits: A lower-cost alternative to e-bikes

While e-bikes present a revolution in urban transport, the cost may still be prohibitive for …