Thought Leadership

View from the Valley: Who’s riding the Micromobility Revolution?

6th August 2019

By Sheana O’Sullivan

A couple of years ago now, I remember a night when I just couldn’t get a cab. I wasn’t far out of town, barely on the outskirts of San Francisco, but as the evening went on, it was looking less and less likely anyone was going to be able to pick me up. Liz, the apologetic operator at the other end of the line, explained that there was a huge shortage of taxis that night because of an event happening in the Mission district, much to my frustration.

Fast forward to 2019 and the chances of that happening in this city are slim to nil. This is the on-the-ground impact of San Francisco’s recent revolution in urban mobility. Now I have several options to get from A to B, from ride-sharing operated cars to electric scooters.

So, what has been the driving force behind this mobility transformation?

City dwellers seek convenient transportation

As more and more people live in cities – now more than half of the world’s population, say the United Nations – there is a need for a broader array of mobility options. We see the big players like Uber and Lyft actively looking past cars to become a one-stop-shop for moving around cities. They’re moving to become urban mobility platforms helping people get around in more affordable and more convenient ways.

E-scooters are a new way to get around that really resonates with San Francisco’s busy citizens. Being able to leave the vehicle anywhere on arrival seems to be the ultimate in consumer drop-off convenience. But, following their temporary ban from the streets of San Francisco, the new Bird monthly rental program obliges customers to now store Bird’s scooters at their homes and the micromobility devices will not be available to rent on sidewalks. The only time people will see the scooters in public is when users are actively riding them.

E-bikes are a great example of how urban mobility can be done well: these stationless, pedal-assist bikes can be legally locked to bike racks or street furniture like benches on sidewalks. The bikes also come with integrated locks which secure them, meaning minimal disruption to the city and maximum security.

San Francisco has one of the worst commutes in the US

I recently read that urban congestion here is estimated to have cost the city $10.6BN in 2017, at an alarming cost of $2,250 per driver. To this day, the city remains the 8th most congested city in the United States. Anything that can take drivers off the roads and help minimize the commute is certainly a positive. 

How is the market reacting?

Investors all over the world appear to be paying far more than lip service to this trend, with over $5.7 billion paid into micromobility startups over the past four years.

Not surprisingly, we’re seeing big acquisitions and heavy investors jockeying for position to get into the growing urban micromobility market.

Lime raised $310 million in February, bringing it up to a valuation of $2.4 billion.  Bird is also reportedly raising a Series D round led by Sequoia Capital at an impressive $2.5 billion valuation. And in June, Bird announced it would acquire electric scooter and moped startup Scoot to further scale their complementary missions – to replace car trips with micromobility options for all. Rumours say the deal was valued at $25 million.

It’s a worldwide movement

This revolution in urban transportation isn’t unique to San Francisco or even just the US. Dockless bike sharing startups, like Ofo, Mobike and Lime have flooded European cities in recent years with rides that can be hired at the tap of an app. In India, I’m hearing about bike-share services from Ola Pedal. In Southeast Asia, it’s Grab and in China, it’s Didi. Both Didi and Grab have also invested directly in bike-sharing startups Ofo and OBike, respectively.

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is looking to take on the European mobility market. Getaround recently acquired Norwegian car rental startup Nabobil and Parisian carsharing platform Drivy. And Sweden’s Voi technology recently raised $30 million from multiple VC firms including global San Francisco-based VC Raine Ventures.

So, what’s next?

I think these new modes of transport are great if they get more people out of cars and into more affordable, green alternatives. What we can be certain about is that there’s more to come.

Uber are beginning to explore last-mile services for public transit agencies, in a bid to transform and “uberize” public transportation. And talk of futuristic flying taxis has even been in the air, with trials planned in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, Australia, as soon as 2023. Though I’m not sure I’m quite ready to book a ride in a hovering drone-helicopter hybrid, however few and far between the cabs are that night.