In a world of social distancing, commuters look towards open micromobility solutions to move around town.

By Jim Saber – President & CEO – NextEnergy[1], Tim Slusser – Director, Smart Mobility Initiatives – NextEnergy, and Christopher Boll – Associate – Foley & Lardner, LLP

Communities around the world continue to grapple with the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In many urban cores, transit systems are either closed completely, or operating on reduced hours and with reduced occupancy thresholds. Meanwhile, as cities and states re-open their economies, consumers wonder what the future will hold for their commutes to stores, restaurants, work, and around their communities.

As consumers have adapted to working and living from home, restaurants and retail businesses continue wonder if consumer’s preferences have changed after two to three months of home delivery of groceries, goods, and meals. As the thought of going to our favorite restaurant or bar is now on the horizon, consumers need to consider how they can carry on their day-to-day commuting in a world encompassed by social distancing measures due to COVID-19. Until the risk of the pandemic passes, commuters for the foreseeable future will be required to adhere to the applicable social distancing and sanitary requirements. Although we do not know what the future will hold, the way commuters make it between locations may forever change, making micromobility solutions more important than ever.

While most consumers remain at home, working in their home office (or from their kitchen tables), essential employees and their ability to safely travel to work has become a potential a health issue. In an effort to follow social distance guidelines and limit the threat of community transmission while commuting, essential workers are traveling to work by means of local transit with reduced options or service, micromobility, and their personal vehicles (if they have one). But in this world dictated by social distancing, face mask, hand sanitizer, and the fear of the unseen, many consumers wonder how they can travel to their place of work, social gatherings, and elsewhere without subjecting themselves and others to risks of an unseen contagion.

Early studies of transit systems during the start of the pandemic found that ridership fell by 70-90 percent during lock-down periods, as most consumers stayed home or limited their time in enclosed public spaces. As states re-open their social lives and economies, transit officials are starting to evaluate if transit ridership will return to sustainable levels. Many consumers are beginning to wonder if fresh air and sun (or rain, depending on the weather) on city streets with wider bike lanes and sidewalks are more appealing (and safer) than a bus, subway car, or shuttle, or even a carpooling personal vehicle.

Wider bike lanes and sidewalks are now more appealing (and safer) than a bus, subway car, or shuttle, or even a carpooling personal vehicle.
Wider bike lanes and sidewalks are now more appealing (and safer) than a bus, subway car, or shuttle, or even a carpooling personal vehicle.

In some cities, community bike share programs are starting to see a renaissance as consumers opt for more open air commuting experiences and distance from their fellow commuters. Beijing, China has recently lifted restrictions, leading their local bike sharing system to see a 187% increase in ridership as commuters look to avoid often-crowded public transit systems. At the same time, scootering sharing systems in the United States are seeing a trend towards trips that last longer and go for longer distances, leading industry participants to “hypothesize… [riders] are using scooters for essential trips across longer distances rather than just short rides across the city.” Will major cities in the United States like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago experience the same as they re-open? Many experts are starting to believe they will [https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/why-bike-and-e-scooter-companies-hit-hard-by-the-pandemic-may-come-back-stronger/2020/05/16/076e2900-95d5-11ea-91d7-cf4423d47683_story.html].

While the increase in ridership is at least in part attributable to warming weather trends as cities move from spring to summer, many micromobility programs have also been offering free or reduced ride fees for regular commuters and essential service employees during this time of uncertainty. Industry participants are seeing this shift in consumer preference towards open air commuting as an opportunity to capture a wider audience of people who cannot otherwise use a personal vehicle or choose not to drive a car. It accordingly appears that micromobility solutions may be a fundamental part of restarting local economies and moving mass quantities of people around urban cores as returning employees seek to get to work with limited human interaction.

Around the globe, cities are looking to adapt to a world where space for individual commuting is increasingly viewed as a necessity. While this might historically have meant widening thoroughfares and freeways to accommodate more cars under the erroneous belief it would lessen traffic congestion (although surprisingly, wider roads actually do not improve congestion), during the pandemic, cities are actually closing roads in favor of the pedestrians and micromobility options. Although there has been a slow trend in certain cities to shift from car-centric to pedestrian-centric environments over the past few decades, the pandemic appears to have accelerated the development of a pedestrian-friendly environment at the expense of the personal automobile. Many cities around the globe have temporarily stopped or limited access to vehicles on certain thoroughfares to provide space for walking and biking, as well as providing restaurants more space for outdoor dining. This has meant reclaiming curbside parking and even entire streets, for pedestrians, bikers, and outdoor seating.

As a result of closed roads and reduced parking, consumers are now faced with commuting to their favorite restaurants by foot, scooter, and bike, rather than driving or taking public transit. When parking hasn’t been compromised, cities have suspended parking fees and parking tickets to limit any interaction between commuters and meter attendants whenever possible.

As cities around the globe continue to unthaw from the freeze put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how commuters can get from Hudson Yards to Wall Street, Old Town to the Loop, or South Lake Union to Downtown Seattle without risking their own health and that of those around them will continue to grow. Micromobility solutions, coupled with personal vehicles and ride-sharing options, offer concrete benefits that make them more attractive than traditional mass commuting options, and likely will continue to rise in popularity as consumers seek to be outside, live in less dense settings, and make their way to work and to entertainment in ways perceived to be lower risk.

jim saber nextenergy
Jim Saber

Jim Saber, President & CEO of NextEnergy, has led NextEnergy’s work in establishing new technology development and demonstration platforms within next generation energy efficiency and transportation applications. Jim’s experience includes the development of over $150 million in technology demonstration programs within e-Mobility, Smart Grid, Buildings and Infrastructure, MicroGrids, Energy Storage, Renewable Energy, and Alternative Fuels. He can be reached at saberj@nextenergy.org.

tim slusser nextenergy
Tim Slusser

Tim Slusser, Director of Smart Mobility Initiatives at NextEnergy, is an accomplished technology strategist and project manager with more than 10 years of business development experience. Tim specialized in the renewable energy and automotive industries, attracted the first $6 billion dollars of electric vehicle and energy storage investments in Michigan, and helped facilitate the early industry partnerships that formed what is now known as the Power Electronics Industry Collaborative (PEIC). He can be reached at tims@nextenergy.org.

christopher boll foley lardner
Christober Boll

Christopher R. Boll, Associate with Foley & Lardner LLP, is a member of the firm’s Transactional & Securities Practice and assists the firm’s Automotive Industry Team in providing insights and interpretation of legislation and innovations around the impact of autonomous and electric vehicles as well as how Auto 2.0, self-driving cars, ridesharing, and micromobility solutions impact traffic, road conditions, transportation, commuting, and urban planning. He can be reached at cboll@foley.com.

[1] Based in the center of Detroit’s growing innovation district, NextEnergy works with a variety of industry partners to commercialize innovative new technologies, helping them to transform those ideas into solutions that will create a better quality of life for all. With access to a microgrid, smart home, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and an alternative fuels platform, NextEnergy demonstrates and pilots technologies in real-world environments to gather data and diverse user-experiences. More information on NextEnergy can be found here, http://www.nextenergy.org/.