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How shared micromobility can help low-income neighbourhoods

Updated: Aug 3, 2023


Urban graffiti  showing parked cars on city street

Photo by Adam Young on Unsplash


Shared micromobility often gets a bad reputation. Some people think it’s a fad, or a toy for the young and wealthy. While it’s true that in many cities, a lot of users are tourists, affluent commuters and students, it doesn’t have to be this way.


Let’s look at shared micromobility with a fresh pair of eyes, as if it was a brand new concept, untested in any city. What are its main characteristics?

  • Zero upfront investment to travel (a big advantage over all privately owned vehicles, from a bicycle to a car)

  • No long-term commitment (so more flexibility than leasing a vehicle)

  • No fixed routes or schedules (the big advantage over public transport)

On the face of it, this “new” mode of travel looks ideal for areas of low car ownership and/or below average income. It could allow people without their own vehicle a method to access work (or training) opportunities currently too inconvenient to reach on public transport. The freedom of a car, at the price of public transport.


Now, let’s switch back to reality. Why aren’t shared micromobility schemes more popular in low-income areas? There are often two issues to resolve:

  1. Price. People in low-income areas might not be able to afford the cost of travel with shared micromobility. Although far cheaper than car ownership, it is often more expensive per trip than public transport, even if it dramatically reduces travel time.

  2. Availability. In many towns, vehicles aren’t available in low-income neighbourhoods.

Price

Although there is no up-front investment required to ride a shared micromobility vehicle, the cost per journey can be higher than taking public transport. There are advantages to shared micromobility that can justify a higher price, such as the convenience of door-to-door travel or not being tied to a timetable, but if you are watching every penny, cheap beats convenient more times than not.


Is there a level playing field when comparing public transport and shared micromobility? In many cities, no. Public transport is often subsidised by the local government because mobility is seen as an essential aspect of life. It helps the economy if people can get to work, to shops, to school/college, etc. Also, encouraging people out of their cars reduces the demand for expensive road building, reduces congestion and leads to cleaner air (and healthier people). In many cities the local government also subsidises their own shared bike schemes for the same reasons.


If local government widely subsidises public transport and in-house shared bikes, why do they often charge 3rd party shared micromobility companies a fee to operate on their streets? If personal mobility is recognised as a benefit to the wider society, why are companies discouraged from providing a service? Sometimes there are good intentions, money raised by charging shared micromobility operators is used to further subsidise public transport, but in other cities, “taxing” shared micromobility operators is just seen as a relatively painless way to raise funds compared to other sources of income. This can force shared micromobility operators to “price-in” the cost of permits, and put their service out of reach of those that would benefit most from their service.


Availability

The lack of availability can be caused by multiple factors, from a simple lack of permission to operate in those areas, to more complex calculations on the ability to cover the cost of operating in areas where people have low disposable incomes. Add to this the frequent correlation of low income and high crime in many cities and the cost of vandalism can make it uneconomic to operate in areas where shared micromobility could do most good.


When there are too few vehicles in an area, residents can’t rely on them being there when they need them, so travel behaviour can’t change. A bus might only pass once an hour, but if it’s reliable, it’s better than trying to commute on an e-scooter that’s nowhere to be found several days per week.


Because people aren’t using shared micromobility vehicles, people don’t value them. When they are on the street, they’re annoying because the people that live in the area don’t see them as useful. This can lead to increased vandalisation, making even fewer vehicles available for use by residents of low-income neighbourhoods.


Making shared micromobility affordable and available

Every city is different, but if the two barriers of Price and Availability can be solved, then many new areas should be able to access this new mode of personal mobility. Anadue believes the solution is targeted price discounts. Lowering prices in low-income neighbourhoods should increase demand and help those neighbourhoods become more connected to other parts of cities.


The mechanics of lowering prices in certain neighbourhoods is easily achieved with existing solutions from Anadue, the experts in dynamic pricing for shared micromobility, but is there a business case to provide shared micromobility to lower-income areas?

If shared micromobility operators could reduce their prices in areas of lower average income, residents of those areas would start to see the parked vehicles as useful to them, rather than something imposed upon them by outsiders. This should lead to less vandalism and reduce the cost of providing a service to these areas.


In some cities, this may not be enough. Relief from the city's “permit fees” for vehicles serving lower-income neighbourhoods would be a move in the right direction, and again, Anadue can provide the data on how many vehicles were in these areas and how many were in areas where permit fees may still apply. It might even be necessary that shared micromobility receive a subsidy to operate in some areas where the social benefit is high, but the commercial position is weak.


Many countries have universal healthcare, and there have been several experiments with universal basic income. Maybe now is the time to seriously consider universal access to personal mobility?



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