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Forget AVs and drones: the contest for the curbside will shape mobility services in 2020

In the fast moving world of mobility we often get carried away with the big ideas. The move to autonomous vehicles (AVs) and the end of private car ownership being the most obvious examples. These grand visions are, of course, exciting, but to get there it is worth taking a look at the narrower picture every now and then. It is time we focused on the curb. And what happens here in the coming year could well define the future direction of shared mobility. This article outlines the key curbside trends of 2019 and what we can expect this year.


Old and urban

The societal trends are clear: more people are migrating to cities, and we are, collectively, becoming more environmentally conscious. This is causing a change in the way we move around with less reliance on the one-size-fits-all private car. The environmental benefits are enormous, and by reducing the number of cars in our cities, there would be more space for living, too. The way towards this radical change in mobility is, however, unclear. Much of this will be defined by the decisions made on the curbside. Decisions by governments, service providers and individuals, which will define the long-term acceptance, profitability and sustainability of shared mobility projects.


Space for parking vs space for life

What should curb space be for? This is a question that will continue to grow in salience throughout the coming years. Car drivers have, up to now, been prioritised. 50 to 60 percent of downtown real estate, in fact, is dedicated to cars in the US. With high levels of congestion and concerns about the environment, this is becoming rapidly unacceptable.

“One of the most impressive things about the Oslo project was that it eliminated pedestrian and cyclist deaths with not a single recorded fatality in 2019”

This has led to a change in cities around the world. York, in the UK, will become the country’s first car-free city centre in 2020, while in 2019 Norway’s capital, Oslo, simply removed the parking spaces in its downtown area completely. The city removed 700 parking spots, replacing them with bike lanes, plants, benches and small parks. One of the most impressive things about the Oslo project was that it eliminated pedestrian and cyclist deaths with not a single recorded fatality in 2019. We can expect similar things in the next year, especially in Europe, as citizens seek to recapture urban space. It will be interesting to see what happens in bigger cities and particularly cities in the US where there is a much greater attachment to car ownership.

The signs are positive. 2019 saw both San Francisco and New York taking steps towards recapturing urban space. San Francisco recently approved a plan to remove private vehicles from its busy Market Street, which will be renovated into space for public transport, cyclists and pedestrians. New York City, for its part, turned a one-mile stretch of its busy 14th Street into a busway.


In the end, the popularity of car-free streets is only likely to grow as urban citizens become less dependent on cars and start to see the benefits of recaptured urban space. Space could be reallocated for housing, communal areas and for economic purposes, such as for shops and cafes. Expect more discussions about how urban space should be used and more announcements of cities going car-free. Don’t expect driving lobbies to lie down quietly, however.


Innovator vs the regulator

In the end the success of any smart mobility project depends on the regulators. Without acceptance from the city itself, projects will never take off. Moreover, it is up to the authorities to provide at least the basic infrastructure to enable mobility services to function.

2019 felt like the year when regulators began to seriously push back against mobility disruptors. We saw a number of regulations that forced ride-hailing operators to redefine their workers’ rights and in London, Uber was outright banned. In the micromobility space, with huge expansion came also growing resentment, with vehicles dumped on sidewalks and concerns over safety. In one of the most high profile cases, the city of Paris (an e-scooter hot spot) decided to restrict scooter sharing to three providers only, and the total number of vehicles was capped at 15,000. Therefore, it seems the prevailing view of asking for forgiveness rather than permission needs revising.


Germany was late to the e-scooter party, only allowing them in 2019. But its thorough Small Electric Vehicle Ordinance, which essentially determined the safety specifications of micromobility scooters and enforced liability insurance, provided a clear blueprint for operators to follow. Lime’s President Joe Kraus called it a “mostly consistent regulatory framework” whose clear guidelines made it easier for the company to invest in expansion.

This kind of clear planning was seen in the city of Hamburg. The local government and e-scooter operators set up a framework for a voluntary agreement which stipulated the organisation of the services, parking, monitoring, traffic safety and data exchange. Scooter fleets would be capped at 1,000 in action per day, per provider within the middle city ring road, while the parking of e-scooters was prohibited in certain areas. This muscular policy making, although stringent, is likely to make for a better framework for mobility innovators to work within, making acceptance easier.


Expect more countries and cities to follow Germany’s lead this year. New York and the UK being the most obvious examples, where in the case of the latter, conflicting road laws essentially outlaw e-scooters and similar vehicles. This is likely to change soon and they may well follow Germany’s lead. Another model could also be the Mobility Data Specification, a digital tool created by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation which collects and shares information on shared mobility, such as where vehicles are parked and where they are active. While the innovator vs regulator tussle is likely to continue, cities and operators would benefit from taking a more proactive approach to legislation.


Shared mobility vs long-term profitability

It is at the curbside where shared mobility services live or die. Too few riders and too high overheads are enough to kill off even the coolest of mobility innovations. And although mass transit tends to be a state-funded enterprise, mobility sharing is far more decentralized. For this reason, much depends on whether operators can establish a profitable and sustainable business model. Much of this comes down to increasing the utilization of shared vehicles. That is: better matching the supply of vehicles with the actual demand for services, so that they are in use for a greater amount of time.


Of 2019’s biggest disappointments, the failures of ShareNow (BMW and Daimler) and Coup (Bosch) were two of the most high-profile. Despite backers with large pockets, both pulled out due to fears over profitability. Coup in a PR statement claimed that the continuation of its service would not be economically unviable in such a highly competitive sharing market combined with high costs. This is a lost opportunity but it doesn’t have to be this way. Part of their problem may have been, like ReachNow, that they expanded quickly but didn’t put enough focus on optimizing operational efficiency. This may explain why smaller players have managed to stick it out, while the giants have stumbled.


This is something closer to home for Ubiq. We have found there is a way towards long-term profitability. By analysing data on fleet usage and other data sources such as: parking, weather and localized events, we are able to make accurate predictions on demand for services in a specific location. And by automatically matching this information with service teams and crowd users, we have developed a fleet efficiency ecosystem, that not only provides the information needed to better match supply with demand, but also the tools to execute it (including predictive charging for shared EV fleets). In increasing the utilization of their vehicles and reducing the amount of time they are sat idly by the curbside, share mobility operators can make a significant step towards profitability. And in doing so, deliver the services that will fundamentally shift the balance from car ownership to shared services.


The battle over the curbside is under way

As we can see from these examples, developments on what we want from the curbside, how it is regulated and how we utilize it, will play a major role in the success of mobility services in the year to come. Policy makers and operators alike need to take a narrower view of the curbside. It won’t be the onset of autonomous vehicles or drones that make or break 2020, it will be the decisions on the curbside that matter.


If you’re interested in finding out more about the future of mobility and how it can be both sustainable and profitable, get in touch with us at businessdevelopment@ubiq.ai.