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Mind the gap

We’ve flattened the curve and now we’re flattening the curb to create gaps on our streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

However, we must be mindful that the gap we’ve created is under threat and could revert back to motor-vehicle use unless it is fully utilised by more active modes of transport, as is unfortunately already happening in Auckland-New Zealand as they are coming out of lockdown.

 

Increasing bike usage – opportunity or obstacle?

The increase in bike purchasing will help fill the space, as will the various government bike schemes; however this is unlikely to achieve the shift to active mobility at the scale needed to fill the gap at the pace required.

 

Moreover, with an influx of bike usage some pitfalls arise. For example, if we tripled bike usage in our major cities, where would we park the bikes? And how would office locker and shower facilities cope with extra numbers whilst maintaining social distancing? This is where shared micro-mobility could help. However, we’ll need some new ideas and to use the learning of other countries to accelerate shared alternatives, which could include e-bikes, e-scooters, cargo bikes, personal mobility scooters and even tuk-tuk e-taxis.

 

What can we learn from other countries?

Countries like Finland and cities like Antwerp have made it mandatory for any shared micro-mobility operator to offer their services through third party digital channels. This open ecosystem allows for micro-mobility services to be accessed as part of a door-to-door journey, thus encouraging the use of other modes such as rail. In fact, grassroots efforts in the UK by at least one train operating company could benefit from a top down nudge from government. This nudge could be in the form of encouraging micro-mobility operators to allow their services to be discovered, booked, and paid for in other smartphone applications, thereby supporting the Mobility-as-a-Service strategy of the government.

 

Looking across the English Channel, we see the French Government’s Sustainable Mobility Package” which offers companies up to €400 per employee to encourage micro-mobility commuting. This is a scheme that the UK could build upon. One such idea currently circulating is to offer citizens a government funded micro-mobility allowance that could possibly be match-funded by employers, stimulating demand and filling the gaps on the roads. This stimulus could aid the introduction of micro-mobility services at the scale required to achieve mass adoption. The incentive could well prove popular with passengers arriving at stations who may prefer to social distance for their onward journeys or for those who simply don’t have space to store a bike of their own.

 

What would be the impact on UK cities?

With any disruption comes concerns: one of which in this case is that free-floating micro mobility could clutter streets, creating hazards for pedestrians. However, cities could help alleviate some of these issues by creating ‘micro-mobility hubs’ which may be as simple as painting a few road markings. These, virtual stations, have been used successfully in Edinburgh with their bike-sharing scheme and could easily be expanded for other modes.

 

Moreover, closing off our streets to motor vehicles could introduce new problems. For example, the issue of delivery, service, and even emergency vehicles traversing cities in which vehicles are excluded. This needs some careful thought but should be not insurmountable.

 

Lastly, the government is planning to allow several cities to carry out trials of e-scooters. These trials should be at scale and as close to real operations as possible, so that broad public feedback can be sought. They should also be completed at pace, as much can be learnt from Europe and the US. The danger, of course, is that while we prevaricate and conduct lengthy tender processes to optimise the introduction of micro-mobility shared services, the motor vehicle lobby will gather momentum and we’ll lose this golden opportunity.

 

Time is against us, we must act NOW

The time is now to be bold, to trial these new services quickly, use the experience of other counties and allow a national role out at pace. It may not be perfect to start, we’ll get things wrong, but we can iterate and improve and some small positive will come from this pandemic.

 

We may not use 100% of the freed-up road capacity at first, but we should seize this opportunity to accelerate new micro-mobility shared services. The road space will gradually be fully utilised, and we’ll flatten that curb for good.

 

This guest blog is by Adrian Ulisse a strategic advisor in the active travel and urban mobility industry.

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