Tech is killing our sidewalks....
The rise of ‘micro-mobility’ has been nothing short of astounding. Bird, which launched its first electric scooter service in Santa Monica in 2017, has changed the face of Los Angeles. Lime, which raised its seed round in 2017, is now operational in 90 U.S. cities as well as in Europe and Latin America. Many more companies have since entered the market, including companies from the US, Latin America and Europe.
With a tiny footprint and zero emissions, these micro-mobility services offer a compelling proposition to major cities - many of which are seeing traffic slow to a standstill whilst their citizens contend with an invisible cloud of toxic pollutants. However cities are far from ready for this radical new mode of urban transport. Just take a walk in Paris or Madrid to get an early glimpse of what is to come: riders are using pedestrian walkways as their highway while discarded bikes and scooters litter the sidewalks.
To make matters worse, delivery robots will soon be hitting the streets. With Amazon alone shipping billions of items every year and companies keen to replace costly gig economy workers, they could soon be crawling all over the sidewalk. No doubt there are many more devices under design that will further erode this finite piece of real estate.
Turning a blind eye is simply not an option for city authorities in Europe. They have learnt from their mistakes with Uber and will not tolerate a repeat of the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” strategy which underpinned the company’s success. They will be keen to find a way of encouraging innovation while ensuring their sidewalks and the needs of pedestrians are protected.
Ultimately they will have to rule out the pick-up and drop-off anywhere model of micro-mobility. Indeed, recent developments indicate that European cities will not allow a free for all: Paris has issued a Code of Good Conduct for micro-mobility companies with more cities likely to follow suit. The guidelines, which will likely become the baseline for issuing licenses to operators, will also need to include a “no sidewalk” usage clause in the terms of service as well as an obligation to include insurance coverage as part of the service fee. They may also require operators to have punitive terms for “bad behavior” by its riders.
Cities must also recognise that delivery bots will require the usage of sidewalks and must therefore issue strict guidelines to these operators too. These should include size and speed as well as delivery hours to coincide with low pedestrian traffic.
Cities will also need to convert parking spots - say one in every ten spots - into micro-mobility pick-up/drop-off points as well as support the hub and spoke city logistics model by making larger spaces available to delivery robot operators. They will likely expect operators to share the cost of setting up the required infrastructure. This could take the form of a licence fee for micro-mobility operators while cities could charge a toll fee for each delivery bot, defined as a percentage of the value of what is being delivered.
Whether you believe in more or less intervention from the public sector, it is very difficult to argue that there is not a crisis looming for our pedestrian walkways. Simply hoping that operators can and will solve the problem themselves would be naive. Those operators that can show pragmatism and work in cooperation with cities, rather than against them, will be most likely to provide a healthy return to investors.