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The lines between car sharing and electric scooter firms are becoming increasingly blurred as they cross-fertilize expertise and innovation, making the big winner sustainable transport. That’s good news for business, transport users and the climate, with the transportation sector as the number one cause of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Micro-mobility” in the form of electric scooters and electric bikes that are ideal for short trips, especially in traffic-dense urban areas, is the latest trend in sustainable transport. Everyone, it seems, wants to be part of it - even the companies that are traditionally tied to the automobile.

San Francisco-based electric scooter startup Lime recently announced it would make its operations in Seattle the largest free-floating car-sharing network in a U.S. city. And last month, a pair of Uber executives joined electric scooter startup Bird, citing the potential to take transportation to the next level by pioneering “Rideshare 2.0” technologies in order to solve ongoing transportation problems.

Uber, for its part, last month purchased Jump, a dockless electric bicycle sharing company, and is now using Jump to add electric scooter sharing to its portfolio of services. At TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said that the company expects electric bicycles and scooters to become the future of urban transportation. He said a decade from now, ride-hailing will be less than 50 percent of all Uber’s business.

“Today, 40 percent of car trips are less than two miles long,” Bird Executive Travis VanderZanden told The Washington Post earlier this year. “Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible so we can get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.”

A broad menu of transport options

Lime argues that its new car-sharing business is still very much rooted in its mission to reduce car use. There is evidence that car-sharing does reduce the number of cars on the road. A 2016 study by car-sharing firm Car2Go found that it led to a 6 to 16 percent drop in the number of miles the average household traveled by car. In Seattle, the report noted, each new Car2G0 vehicle added corresponded with a reduction of three to 10 private vehicles, either because people sold their cars or decided against buying them. 

Lime’s car-sharing business launched last week with 50 vehicles on city streets. By 2019, the company says it aims to have 1,500 cars in Seattle. Lime CEO Toby Sun told Bloomberg the primary reasons for the move into car-sharing are to serve “long-distance, higher terrain and bad weather.”

While Lyft and Uber are moving in the opposite direction—shifting from cars to now including bikes and scooters—the main impetus for all the companies is to offer users a full menu of transport options, which can only be good from a sustainable transport perspective.

Rise of scooters unprecedented

Judging from a recent nationwide survey, this is precisely what people want. The survey, “The Micromobility Revolution: The Introduction and Adoption of Electric Scooters in the United States,” found widespread support for the dockless electric scooters—70 percent of respondents like these new services—and evidence this new form of transportation can address transit equity issues.

Polling 7,000 users across 11 U.S. cities, the study found that adoption was “accelerating faster than ever,” due to both the proliferation of smartphones and the general uptick in new mobility options.

In fact, the adoption rate is exponentially higher than other shared mobility options. In 2013, more than a dozen years after car-sharing services like Zipcar were first introduced, roughly 2 to 3 percent of the over-18 population had used such a service. In contrast, scooters, which have been active in the U.S. for less than a year, have already registered a 3.6 percent adoption rate, according to the study.

In addition to a growing adoption rate, electric scooters have also been embraced faster and more widely by populations not traditionally well-served by transit startups. The survey found a higher rate of adoption among lower-income groups compared to other micro-mobility services. Since dockless services require fewer infrastructure investments, they offer a more affordable way to expand transit access.

And transit firms are taking note, promoting their vehicles as means for cities to create more equitable public transportation systems. Bird, a scooter startup, recently announced a plan to subsidize rides for low-income users.

Steering innovation with the right regulation

These new modes of transport often outrun the ability of cities to study and regulate them, requiring better coordination between public and private sectors, as well as added incentives to steer riders towards shared systems. Regulating app-based mobility services was the focus of a recent roundtable held by the International Transport Forum, looking at congestion both on roads and the curb.

“In order to create an ecosystem that can ensure the success of a virtuous cycle between these new modes and established public transit, government needs to lead,” wrote Gabe Klein, Co-Founder of CityFi, an urban change management firm, in Forbes.City government should be at the forefront of shaping the rollout of these systems in collaborative, co-creative ways.”

As Klein sees it, “This is not an either/or choice between regulation or innovation. In truth, clear regulation can help scale up innovation.”

Image credit: Mike Licht/Flickr

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