October 22, 2020

Mile-wide urban planning problems have micro solutions

By: Julia Steyn - Bolt Mobility Board Member

One likely – and imperative – aspect of the United States’ coming economic recovery is significant investment in modernizing the country’s infrastructure. The key to ensuring these investments result in efficient, sustainable communities is designing infrastructure that emphasizes last-mile delivery – the movement of people and goods from a transportation hub to its final delivery destination.

If 2020 has taught us anything about transportation, it’s that public networks and infrastructure need to serve all of a community – not just its most centralized, commercialized areas. While people will surely spend less time at home in future years, many of the trends that have enabled society to function this year – remote work, remote learning – point to a future where essential functions take place across increasingly varied and decentralized locations.

Along with this increased emphasis of individual spaces will likely be a renewed focus on combatting climate change – an issue whose urgency has only increased as public consciousness has (understandably) moved away from it temporarily. One of the most important things the US can do as a country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions is to revamp its infrastructure to enable last-mile transportation that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels. Simply put, if we can enable all short-distance travel to be powered by renewables, we can significantly reduce our country’s carbon footprint.  

As of now, last-mile delivery is overwhelmingly performed by automobiles, a mode of transportation whose energy efficiency plummets when navigating stop-and-go city traffic. Urban planning that accounts for – and aims to reduce – this inefficiency by enabling the use of e-scooters, bicycles and other micro mobility solutions has the potential to make urban areas more sustainable, more livable and less congested.

Right now, one of the biggest barriers preventing this kind of change is in the hearts and minds of local stakeholders with the power to enact it. Cities have often viewed e-scooter and bikeshare programs as nuisances rather than tools for sustainability after efforts to implement them – with little or no accompanying investment in rider-friendly infrastructure – caused initial confusion.  As experts can attest, this isn’t the right approach.

“Micro Mobility operates best when separated completely from cars, trucks, busses, rail, and even foot traffic,” said former GM Vice President of Design and Bolt Mobility Advisor Ed Welburn. “Dedicated elevated corridors, boulevards, and bicycle/scooter lanes are ideal in providing a safe space for micro vehicles, but the beauty of micro mobility is that it can operate without major improvements in our cities infrastructure.”

One silver lining to the pandemic-induced home-bound lifestyle of 2020 is that it has inspired a number of urban centers to give micro mobility a second try. The result in cities like New York, Washington, Ft. Lauderdale, Portland and Durham has been an influx of individualized, sustainable and affordable rider options that better enable last-mile delivery than the largely sidelined mass transit systems, without necessitating major infrastructure improvements.

In Washington, DC, where Bolt re-launched operations this summer, the average Bolt scooter travelled more than three times more distance in July 2020 than July 2019.  This tracks with overall use increases across various markets, as the average Bolt scooter ride lengths have more than doubled in both time and distance this year compared to 2019, accounting for a total of more than 260 thousand miles travelled on Bolt scooters.

Looking to the future, it’s imperative that we harness the micro mobility progress made this year into long-term reforms that fully incorporate micro mobility – and accompanying infrastructure – into coming efforts to modernize our cities. The key is to account for it in coming planning efforts as a primary solution, rather than tacking it on to infrastructure plans only meant to serve the status quo.

“Obviously, existing streets and bicycle lanes need to have smooth surfaces free of broken pavement, steps, and dips,” said Welburn. “In no way should micro mobility impede the movement of pedestrians.”

That would require a collaborative approach between urban planners and micro mobility designers who, according to Welburn, have much responsibility as micro mobility becomes a more significant solution to future urban infrastructure needs.

“Short of major changes in infrastructure, designers need to create micro vehicles which operate in the existing infrastructure,” said Welburn. “Tire size, and new vehicle solutions for their configuration must meet, or even exceed customer needs or requirements.”

By increasing urban use of micro mobility, cities can improve the state of their last-mile transportation right now without sacrificing the ability to make major infrastructure improvements going forward. Over both the long term and the short term, this will reduce congestion and pollution while making communities more livable and sustainable.