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10 Commandments of Micromobility

At the Micromobility America industry conference in San Francisco, Horace Dediu presented what he calls the 10 commandments of the micromobility industry.

Dediu is a veteran in the micromobility space, having coined the term itself. The conference was focused on companies active in micromobility, which includes anything that transports people short distances under 45km/h and uses either human or electric power. These transport devices can be owned privately or as a part of a mobility as a service (MAAS) network, like Lime scooters.

The presentation’s aim was to set out a foundation, or axioms, that are supposed to define the industry of micromobility. To do this Dediu attempts to capture the development of the market and its key distinguishing features in a list of ten commandments. The commandments are the following:

C1        Nobody invented micromobility.

C2        Most trips are short, which means short trips are more important.

C3        Cars are a bundle.

C4        The smaller it gets, the bigger it gets. (ridership volume)

C5        You can’t get there from here. (climate change)

C6        Don’t dig where there’s no treasure. All infrastructure is a sunk cost.

C7        They promised flying taxis. We got bike lanes.

C8        You sell miles, but customers buy smiles.

C9        Micromobility is a mind for the bicycle.

C10      Cities always win.

There are a number of these that pick up on the historical development of micromobility. C1 points out that the advent of modern micromobility (to distinguish it from bicycles that have obviously been around a long time) is only a few decades old and is the result of a confluence of many things: battery tech improvements, concern for the environment, urbanization, and population growth. C4 points draws a parallel between mobile phones and micromobility, claiming that as computers shrank their mass market appeal grew, and within a few years far outstripped the laptop and desktop market in terms of units and number of interactions per day, which is also mentioned in C2 (50% of all trips are between 0 and 5 miles, just like most interactions with a computer are short and with mobile devices). Lastly C10 points to the inevitable longevity of the city as an anti-fragile phenomenon. The pandemic has stressed urban centers, but they’ve seen worse and will bounce back stronger because of it, and micromobility is expected to be part of that rebound.

The fundamental orientation of the micromobility industry stands on this historical process but turns on particular features of micromobility in the context of the transport market. C3, for example, points out that cars can be seen as a bundle. The idea of a bundling or unbundling goes back to Jim Barksdale, who said that there are “only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” Digital technology is very good at unbundling previous products to create new markets: think CDs to MP3s to Spotify. Cars, it may be, are bundles that can be unbundled into various new markets, like micromobility and ride-hailing. This, combined with the enjoyment to be found in micromobility (C8: You sell miles, but the customer buys smiles) suggests that it is an industry ripe for exponential growth. Due to the size of the vehicles rapid iteration is possible, and most importantly, the quick application of software.

C5 points out that the projected increase in cars is unsustainable, even with massive electrification of the car fleet, which currently stands a nearly 2 billion vehicles. In order for the population to grow, cities to expand, and greenhouse gasses to reduce, Dediu is convinced that micromobility is the only real viable option and can provide over 50% of all trips in an economic and sustainable manner.  

Personal Comment:

This presentation raises a host of interesting issues. Here I want to discuss a little more two of the issues raised: the built environment and market forces.

Under the banner of C6 Dediu points out that the built infrastructure, and in particular the inner-city freeway system, is a sunk cost – and that it would be a mistake to tie ourselves down from moving forward to a more optimal system due to such sunk costs. An image used by Horace Dediu in his presentation to drive home this point shows the city centre of Siena (population: 30,000) side by side with a highway interchange in Houston (population: 0), both representing the same land area. This strikes me as a good observation, but with a caveat. Namely, choosing between maintaining Houston’s freeways or building European style city centers in their place are not the only options. Using the land between the roads for solar panels, for example, would change the image from a net energy consumption on the left compared to energy production on the right. What is seen as a good use of space depends a lot on what metric we use, and what end we want to achieve, when deciding how to spend limited resources. However, his core point remains, we should not let sunk costs lock us into the same way we’ve always done things.

On C8 “You sell miles, but customers buy smiles”, Dediu observes that purchase decisions are often based on the quality of experience. Interestingly, this is somewhat in tension with his comments on sunk costs. People clearly experience sunk costs as a painful loss, and thus will smile more if they don’t have to suffer that loss, irrational as that may be. Regardless, it is a good point and people will spend money on what they enjoy, guaranteeing a potential market, unless there is some regulatory or other pressures that come into play.

Dediu does a great job of setting out an argument for why micromobility has to be the future, but there are some difficulties that he glanced over. There may certainly be some parallels between the comparison of cars and micromobility with computers and mobile phones, but they are certainly a lot of divergences too. 50% of all trips may be short, and doable by micromobility, but not all those trips are by an individual: sometimes we drop kids, pick up friends, move house, go to the dump, go to Ikea, and so on. Other factors that may make micromobility solutions less attractive are the weather and the added risk of injury.

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems