Despite global turmoil, 2020 was the year micromobility hit its stride–particularly in Europe. Two-wheeled electric vehicles became ubiquitous on urban streets, and cities took bold steps to reclaim space from cars and repurpose parking spaces for greater public benefit. In the face of dire predictions for the shared micromobility industry at the beginning of the pandemic, many companies had a great year: my company, Voi, expanded our service in dozens of cities across the continent, growing to 50 cities and counting, including 17 in the U.K.
Still, micromobility’s real potential has been stymied by ongoing nuisance and safety issues like sidewalk clutter, and lingering concerns about sustainability and the well-being of all road users. Over the past year, Voi has put resources into solving these challenges in European markets. As we take steps to expand into the U.S., here’s what we’ve learned.
Fully dockless models don’t work in dense cities
Bad parking is one of the top complaints about e-scooter programs. Dockless models allow users to park wherever they wish, and unfortunately, vehicles can end up in the middle of a sidewalk. Some particularly dense European cities have lost their tolerance for the free-for-all parking model. Recent technology advancements means it’s now possible to protect our sidewalks from errant e-scooters.
Voi began to phase out the fully dockless model in 2020 in favor of a more tailored set of solutions. In cities where parking is a concern, we now use ‘geofencing’ technology and physical infrastructure to customize parking solutions block by block to ensure e-scooters are where they’re supposed to be. This includes parking docks designed in partnership with advocates for blind and low-vision pedestrians in dense areas of cities, as well as ‘virtual parking corrals’ that require riders to park in locations demarcated in-app. In some cities, we’ve also implemented ‘incentivized’ parking zones, which give users discounts for parking in preferred areas. While this has already reduced parking complaints, new technologies that integrate on-board cameras promise to soon make improper parking a thing of the past.
A comprehensive Vision Zero strategy improves safety for all
‘Vision Zero’, the global strategy to eliminate all traffic injuries and fatalities while increasing safe, equitable mobility for all, takes a systems approach to identify the best strategies to meet those goals. When applied to scooters, vehicle design is critical, but so is rider training, driver behavior, and street design. Together, they act as a force multiplier for safety. As new entrants into the transportation ecosystem, e-scooter companies must do their part to improve road safety for riders and all street users.
Hailing from Stockholm, the birthplace of the Vision Zero movement, safety is in Voi’s DNA. Beyond designing a robust vehicle, we’ve added new safety features to improve communications between riders and other street users, including turn indicators. In addition to in-app safety tips, we’ve developed an online ‘riders-ed,’ and, depending on a city’s preference, incentivize or require new users to complete the curriculum; to date, more than 500,000 users have enrolled in our e-scooter traffic school. Late at night, we turn on a ‘reaction test’ to address intoxicated riding, and every Voi ride can start with a ‘helmet selfie’ that rewards users with ride credits for safer behavior. These efforts improve rider behavior, helping to ensure that pedestrians feel safe.
Street design also plays a major role in mitigating safety risks for micromobility riders. Scooter data offers important insights, and we share ride data that cities have used to identify pain points and popular routes to prioritize infrastructure investment. We’re also using this knowledge to help design modular approaches to reclaiming streets, including our recent collaboration on the “1-minute city” quick-deploy street modules.
Investment in environmental sustainability improves service. And the bottom line.
While e-scooters have long been touted as sustainable, their environmental benefits were questionable in the early days of the industry. The cumulative lifecycle emissions— which includes the total environmental impact of their manufacture, shipping, use and disposal—didn’t add up when e-scooters only lasted two months in shared use. The old operational model that relied on gig-labor wasn’t green either; tapping gig workers for charging and rebalancing meant that operators had zero control over the types of trucks or vans used to collect scooters to charge. In fact, a 2019 study that examined the issue found that taking a U.S. e-scooter service was often no better than taking a car.
Several European capitals have begun to require a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in addition to environmental mitigation strategies tailored to that market. Our LCA findings estimated a vehicle lifespan of five years, and encouraged Voi to pursue swappable batteries–which dramatically reduce operational emissions, prolong vehicle life, and ensure e-scooters remain charged and ready to ride. Swappable batteries have also improved labor conditions for our team — on-the-ground staff don’t have to lug 60-pound scooters to a warehouse and instead swap batteries with e-cargo bikes. Under this model, Voi has reduced operational emissions by 81% and vehicle uptime has improved significantly—good for the environment and good for business. Now that’s something we can all believe in!
Carl Vernersson is the Chief Commercial Officer at Voi, the Sweden-based shared micromobility company, where he oversees policy development, user growth, and market entry. Earlier in his career, Carl oversaw digital strategy at global public policy agency Kreab, and was the COO at At Night Management, where he helped build local artists into global stars.