The electric revolution on our city streets, already underway, looks much more like a scooter than a Tesla.
Physics. And geometry: Size really matters for both energy consumption and spatial efficiency. And both drive affordability and therefore the speed of uptake.
The conventional wisdom, especially as expressed in many official documents, is that electrifying the transport sector means waiting for the technology and cost of private cars to change enough, to organically, over time, change out the whole fleet to electric, like for like. This then, conveniently for the unimaginative, is the change you have without having to change.
And matches a similar one about urban form; the future is just greener buildings still spread out further and further into countryside at low densities; curiously almost exactly like past, but with a 21stC tinge.
Don’t get me wrong, the gradual replacement of current fossil fuelled road fleets; passenger, service, and freight, will be transformative for the energy sector, urban air quality, climate emissions, and our balance of payments. And in more ways than people know (check out the possibilities of nation’s e-fleet as a giant battery, vehicle to grid or V2G, for example). But it really is a failure of the imagination to expect these things to change in isolation. We know that big changes in energy and transport technologies always lead to land-use and lifestyle changes too. Anyway, if we look, we can see change already underway.
We are not just changing fuel source, but also vehicle size and how we use our urban areas. And these changes are happening real fast.
Smaller e-vehicles offer an answer to both the need for rapid transition from fossil fuel vehicles and the demand for more spatially efficient city movement systems. This is great news because urban car traffic quantity is inversely correlated to almost every measure of city success there is; for public health, safety, and growing the urban services economy.
In the 21stC city: Loitering is more valuable than motoring.
So where are we at?
Auckland has been adding density to its urban area all century, building up to out at a ratio of around 75:25. This has largely been through suburban infill, and metropolitan centre apartments. Since the Unitary Plan has been operative, reducing some restrictions on building up, this ratio has grown recently up to 90:10 in the data up to May 2018. In the city centre this is most obvious but is certainly not the only urban area to be getting more complex; with more residents and more employment, education, and entertainment options, within closer reach.
Happily too, we have at last been adding alternative movement infrastructure, cycleways, and finally more effective public transit so more and more people are getting to places without a car. Again this is especially evident in the city centre, but really that’s just the early adopter area of a city-wide trend (both PT and cycling ridership growth are consistently over 2x population growth) .
No wonder pedestrian counts are up, cycling is on the rise, but also that those little electric scooters that suddenly turned up in Auckland are proving so popular.
So what of the physics, here’s a good Wired article comparing scooters to Teslas, all in crazy US measurements of course:
So e-scooters use a fraction of the energy of a conventional car, like 1%, and still only ~5% of an electric car (not including embodied energy).
The electric battery and motor can so much more easily and cheaply perform a movement task when the vehicle size is smaller; less mass requires less energy. And our increasingly crowded city streets can’t fit 2 tonne tin boxes to move one human around anymore either, so there’s a perfect storm of technology and need meeting these little devices.
Of course you say, we all know that, but no one’s going to scoot for 20kms on the motorway to work, duh! For sure, but they absolutely will scoot 2 kms to work not on a motorway, or 500m from the transit station to work on city streets or home again from the station in the ‘burbs. So our changing urban form and our gradually improving and spreading Rapid Transit Network, turn out to be a perfect fit for exactly these machines.
But not only the machines themselves, but also the sharing system they operate under. Some prefer to own their own, but the boom has been led by the shared ones.
And it’s not going to stop. As far as I can work out (and the data is proprietary so I don’t really know- more on that later) they are, shall we say, financially sustainable:
The economics of these scooters are nuts. They cost on average around $5-600 and they do approx 8-10 rides a day (data confirmed from offshore – word is AKL is at the high end). If you assume an average trip cost of $3 the scooter will pay itself off in 2-3 weeks of use from gross revenue. The business is profitable, even paying chargers $5-7 a night and having scooters turn over (ie. depreciate) in a 6-8 week period still keeps the overall business looking very attractive.
So much so that they’re eating into other paid ride platforms: Shared scooter/ebikes are eating Uber’s trips: In the cities where Lime and Bird are popular, Uber saw a 10% drop off in car trips. It’s why they bought Jump, their own Ebike play. Where they have Jump, it’s been a boost of 15% more trips overall, just pushed to scooters/bikes. Here
Uber isn’t alone in embracing e-bikes. Its biggest rival, Lyft, purchased bikeshare startup Motivate this month, and plans to introduce more bikes and scooters. And then there are all the scooter-sharing outfits popping up lately. Bird and Lime have raised money faster than Uber and Lyft did in their early days.
“People are realizing vehicles can be much smaller and simpler and electric,” Klein told CNNMoney. “You don’t need a giant GMC Suburban for a trip under a mile.”
The market for micromobility is massive: even if you assume that we’re only talking about short trips (sub 6kms) on a passenger km travelled perspective, the total addressable market globally is estimated at ~5 trillion kms of easily convertible trips globally.
This profitability opens up the possibility of taxing the sector to fund further ‘bike lanes’ for them to use. As is happen in Portland, where 25c per trip goes to the DOT. And that’s a potentially handy sum.
- At the city policy level this just more evidence that we need to get on and add that ‘3rd space‘, bike lanes, between the footpath and the traffic lanes as quickly as possible so there are safe places to use these new smaller machines (and it must be legal for these devices).
- And that this should be done by converting existing traffic lanes because this is where we want the new users to come from, and will come from. And this is the cheapest and quickest way.
- Slower speeds on urban streets too are vital for shared use.
- A programme of dedicated, and ideally separate, walking and bike/scoot paths focused on Transit Stations as a priority.
- The same for Schools.
- Manage but not restrict these new entrants into the market, and, and I think this is important, do so at the cost to the companies of sharing their data with the city. Our public agencies need this data to serve their people well. And there are ways to do this without compromising commercial viability.
- If there is a case for public subsidies or stimulus in the e-vehicle market then it should be at the light weight end. Scooters don’t need this, but e-bikes are not nearly as accessible so could be a good place to consider this.
- It is vitally important that or planning agencies, AT, NZTA, Ministries of Transport and Energy, the Productivity Commission all understand that bike and scooters etc, Micromobiliy, are transport, not just recreation. They need to include them in their analysis and guidance. They currently have a huge blind spot about this, and only have eyes for e-cars.
- Ditto the urban form changes that partner the uptake of these devices; consistently downplayed in official studies I’ve seen.
- The same is the case for our transport models, make sure mode-shift to these devices is actually a possibility in the model.
Here’s a really good podcast and blog with NZ contributor Oliver Bruce on this technology from a market perspective. And here’s an article on Santa Monica the birthplace of micromobility. And an interesting local perspective on Stuff too.
Disruption may well be an overused word, but all three of transport, energy, and urban form are being disrupted by new technologies, new economies, and the reality of climate change pressures. And that means real change, whole communities doing everyday things really differently to how we did them last week, last year, last century. It’s coming like an electric train.
So on a last note, below is the Council comms on transport and climate change. Note it says ‘reduce the number and length of trips’. If that really means the number and length of motorised vehicle trips well that’s dead right. Because as we know that every new transport technology to date has stimulated new journeys that previously weren’t taken, so we can expect there to be new micromobility e-trips as well as substituted ones… rev your small and relatively low powered e-engines, citizens….
The answer is not just better cars one day, but fewer cars now.