Before the pandemic hit, micro-mobility was on a high growth trajectory. A convenient, public transport option for individuals in urban areas, often for last-mile journeys. While Covid-19 drove an unprecedented collapse in the number of passenger journeys, there is good news for operators: shared micro-mobility is set to rebound strongly.
In anticipation, cities offering citizens access to shared micro-mobility are faced with evolving their infrastructure to support growth. Others, such as London, where personal micro-mobility solutions are not yet legal, need to consider a range of issues as they trial potential options, such as how to serve communities most effectively, where to position hubs, and how to ensure equitable access.
The operators – Voi, Lime, and others large and small – will collect their own data to inform these decisions. However, city authorities can find themselves licensing multiple operators and struggling to generate the insight on which to base planning decisions.
“[Operators are] not really there to coordinate everything for the whole city, they’re there to run their e-scooters.” says Giles Bailey, Policy advisor at Micro-mobility data platform Vianova. “If you have a competitive market where you have two or three operators, in time, they could sit around a table and try and coordinate everything. But that’s not the starting point”
French/Swiss startup Vianova has responded to this challenge by taking the available data and using it to help authorities develop and implement real-time strategies for shared micro-mobility. As of March 2021, Vianova is providing its platform to 13 cities, working with 30+ operators – and clearly sees an opportunity to bring order to each.
For cities, the burning problem is a lack of real-time, standardised data from operators, and little understanding of what to do with the data you do have. “[As a city planner in local government], this operator gives you an Excel spreadsheet once a week; then this one is giving you an API feed, and this one’s giving you nothing. How do you then make sense of this all?” Without better integration of data platforms, cities are left managing “just a circle of chaos and conversations.”
Vianova believes that ”there’s a better way of doing this – through an intermediary who isn’t an operator, that has best practice knowledge across many markets, and can quickly and efficiently get the data into one place.”
It’s this proposition that has seen Vianova playing this intermediary role for more and more cities over the last few years. An active voice in the UK micro-mobility discussion for some time, the company made a concrete step into the UK market at the end of 2020 as part of the Northamptonshire e-scooter trial. Vianova’s solution provides the backbone for the council’s partnership with Voi, the e-scooter operator in a first-of-its-kind trial.
“Frankly, they will create issues and problems because anything new, exciting, innovative creates issues and problems,” says Bailey of the trial, “[but] It’s getting very, very positive. Data- led forward looking communication amongst ourselves, the County Council, the operator about the service running well, being managed well, and actually having insights and processes to manage the scooter in front of the care home – who’s dealt with it? it is in a no go zone?”
European Policy guidelines:
For every new city that adopts micro-mobility, there’s a new set of decisions to be made – and starting from scratch can lead to problems, as Bailey points out:
“Thinking back to the starting point, you can imagine if you create a new device, and don’t put any rules, have no data, and let people just carry on, [scooters] will be everywhere.
That’s what cities face. It’s not really the way of making innovation work successfully, particularly in cities where space is limited, lots of people want to do things and the limited amount of space that is available”
Last year, Vianova published their whitepaper, European Policy Guidelines on Shared Micro-Mobility. Wide-ranging and comprehensive, the guidelines explore the range of challenges cities and operators are likely to face when upgrading their micro-mobility offering, or introducing a new system.
Naturally, initial questions feed into wider questions around access to micro-mobility, contingent on their cost and distribution – aspects which the guidelines tackle head on, putting forward recommendations for authorities on policies and practices that might ensure convenient and equitable access to as many potential users as possible.
Through both the guidelines and their platform, Vianova aims to help bring that information together for cities to allow them to manage micro-mobility effectively – not the easiest task without asking the right questions.
“So first question, how do you know what the operators are already doing?”
“Then you put the onus on the operator to explain, ‘this is how you officially park them’, ‘This is where you should officially park them’, and ‘what kinds of places’. Then how do you ensure that’s being enforced by the operator?
“Okay, let’s do something better. Let’s create designated places. And if the operator does that, or the city does that, and then paints lines on the pavement and so on? Where do you place them? You need some kind of rules and regulations.
“But the city actually needs some insight to know that the operator is managing it well. Because again, the ‘call a phone number if it’s in the wrong place’ [approach] creates chaos, and no one actually gets enough accurate data to really understand what’s going on.
“And again, particularly when you have multiple operators, which most European cities do…. they need this consolidated into a place where they can see quickly, efficiently and effectively what’s going on across the space and create the longer term insights to know ‘okay, this is what I’m planning today, what do I want to do in three years…five years.”
When it comes to creating common data standards to shape this information gathering, Vianova has a preference, but seems more inclined to help cities find what’s best for them and the operators they work with.
“One of the issues in all of this is – and we’ve talked about how operators should give data to cities – is what format should that data be in? Every operator comes up with their own format, in different ways and different bits of data.”
“Having some standardisation in the type of data and how it’s transmitted across is useful. There are a range of different standards. And inevitably, as time goes by, there’ll be other ones.”
“We want to push the debate to give data, information, and best practice that makes all of these services work well.”
Why are cities not further ahead?
Shared personal transport options have existed in some form for nearly two decades, although micromobility’s popularity has increased more recently than options like London’s Santander shared cycling. So why is the approach to micro-mobility so fragmented across Europe – and in some cases, why have cities failed to take more innovative stances on managing micro-mobility?
“In some ways, some people resist the new. What we’ve seen in this industry, but probably lots of other industries in the last few years, is that innovators push very hard to see new things happening and push new solutions. Frankly, cities have resisted the challenge and looked at very traditional solutions.
“And people seeing around the world, all these other solutions are actually changing how they travel which is putting more and more pressure on innovation change, let alone the pandemic which has changed so much of how we live. Almost all of these pressures are just forcing us to think differently.
“But thinking differently isn’t easy. Thinking back to my days at TfL, it requires a certain mindset, support and funding and raise your risk, then data and insights to manage local politics.
Frankly, you have to do it to have a successful city and a liveable city and deal with climate change and green issues.”
Offering cities a wide range of recommendations that might help to avoid confusion down the line, whether between cities, operators or citizens, the European Policy guidelines contains little to which anyone could object. Is the objective therefore to see cities adopt and follow these recommendations, creating a more standardised approach in the future?
On this, Bailey is pragmatic: “We didn’t start from the point of view of ‘this is the answer’ – it’s written on this day. Cities: go away, do this and we’ll all be fine. With this and other documents we put them into the mix of the debate across the industry. One city leader reads it, or one manager and one operator – and it influences the conversation.
“We don’t necessarily see it needing to be approved by this government or that government. But we want to see the thoughts, the input, the implications used in the thinking – particularly by the cities we are working with.”
Flexibility and learning seems to be as much the purpose of these guidelines as setting common standards. Since the policy guidelines were published, Vianova’s views have continued to evolve. Since publication, Vianova launched its trial with Northamptonshire; Bailey reflects on how quickly the landscape is moving.
“We want to get into a whole series of other conversations about some of the even more recent learnings we’re experiencing, such as in Northamptonshire.” The intent: “share that with the wider world again, to establish best practice learnings, and how you make things work.
“It’s a very fast moving market, you could update the document already with some of the new lessons we’re learning.”
To find out more about Vianova’s technology, visit their website here.