The champions of soft mobility

For quite some time, bikes have reigned supreme on the field of sustainable, non-motorised means of transportation. But recently, all sorts of new engines have begun flocking our streets: electric scooters, Segways, e-skates, hoverboards, electric skateboards, what have you. It will take more than technological innovation, however, for these soft mobility solutions to achieve true intermodality — after all, that’s what this is all about.

E-skates, hoverboards and shared bikes

After the successive (half-) failures of Vélib and free-floating bike services, the city of Paris is now roamed by electric scooters, courtesy of Californian companies Lime Bike and Bird. Since the summer of 2017, Strasbourg-based startup Knot is testing its non-electrical scooter services around train stations in Saint-Denis and Montrouge (both neighbouring cities of the French capital), as well as in Colmar. Plans are in the works to launch in the United States and Germany too. In France, around 800 000 to 1 million scooters are sold every year. They are lighter, easier to park and easier to maintain than bikes; when un-motorised, they can be used on the sidewalks and are safe for people who don’t know how to drive (yes, riding a bike in the city definitely requires some knowledge in that department).

Then, you have the new shiny, futuristic gadgets that money can buy. For a couple of years, people have been developing their own electric skateboards, and now you can just buy them. Segway, after inundating the world with its gyropods and hands-free wheels, recently launched the e-skates: two small platforms, one for each feet, that are commanded much like the original Segway, by shifting the weight of the body. Hoverboards have now become so ubiquitous you can find one for less than 150€.

The trouble with intermodality

Compared to the bike, these objects all have one thing in common: they are easy to take along on a train, subway or bus ride, effectively solving the first and last mile problem. In cities like Berlin and Copenhagen, where the stations have no turnstiles and most trains have designated spaces for bikes, it’s easy to combine cycling and riding the train in your everyday commute. But in London, for instance, only foldable bikes can be taken on the Tube within the limits of the Circle line, i.e. the city centre. In Paris, it is forbidden altogether to take a bike in the métro, bus and tramways: only suburban line trains allow it, outside of peak hours — which defeats the whole purpose of intermodality on the way to work.

This matters because, as shows a study led by BCG with the Urban Lab at My Little Paris, even though new mobility solutions have multiplied recently, people in the Paris region haven’t really changed their commuting habits. While 97% of respondents in the “urban millennial” segment said they had at least one mobility-oriented app on their phone and 76% had used a shared mobility service in the past 6 months, only 6% resort to them on a daily basis. Users cite difficulties with soft mobility services (like Vélib bikes that are more often broken than not) and the fact that they are often confined to the city of Paris as reasons for not using them everyday.

Above all, as these services proliferate, people end up with dozens of mobility apps on their phones, which truly doesn’t favour intermodality. As explains François Adoue, a doctor in town and country planning, to La Tribune, “people try to sell these solutions as an answer to the last mile problem. But in reality, these new modes of mobility do not develop in complementarity along one ride.” That’s where Mobility as a Service comes into play: according to the BCG and My Little Paris study, “a single-use application would facilitate navigating” the different options, as well as “raise awareness among the citizens” on their very existence. If we don’t make it easier to switch between a personal bike to a suburban train to an electric scooter, multiplying these options doesn’t make that much of a difference.