While auto companies are still enjoying strong sales activity today, this may not be the case a decade from now. As more Millennials and Boomers choose to live in cities, the space and need for personal automobiles declines. In densely populated neighborhoods, developers are encouraged to build garages with fewer parking spots than there are apartments to keep car traffic growth in check. For example, a proposed development in downtown Boston, One Bromfield, would include one parking spot for 70% of apartments. Urban population growth is not the only reason why personal vehicle ownership seems likely to decline. Others reasons include:
The advent of car sharing and ride sharing companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Enterprise car share, Zip Car etc.) that makes owning a car less necessary
The evidence that Millennials are driving less compared to older generations at the same age due to lifestyle and attitudinal differences (see this research from transport scholar Noreen McDonald of UNC)
In preparation for a world that relies less on personal automobile ownership, automobile manufacturers are investing in alternative urban transport services and technology. This is happening globally, not just in the U.S. Here are some examples:
In May, Toyota and Volkswagen announced that they were “investing in technology start-ups that are working to change the way people travel by car” (see NYT’s article from May). These two aren’t yet going off the car chassis, but investing in ride sharing services. Toyota invested in Uber and Volkswagen investing $300 million in Gett, an app that is popular in Europe. Also notable is GM’s $500 million investment in Lyft announced in January of this year.
BMW has partnered with HAX, a hardware venture accelerator to launch Urban-X, a new accelerator focused on urban hyper-growth and smart cities. The urban transport-related firms selected for their current program include:
Brooklyness, creators of an intelligent, high-tech bike helmet (note: I just backed them on Kickstarter)
Samocat, creators of kick scooter sharing systems for cities
This week I was a research participant in an MIT Media Lab project with the Persuasive Urban Mobility team of the The Changing Places Group. A key goal of the research is driving adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors in cities through persuasive environmental and social factors as well as through technologies that make adopting these behaviors easier. One of the key researchers on the team, Agnis Stibe, describes the concept of persuasive cities in depth in his recent TEDx Beacon Street talk. One example of environmental and social persuasion that he uses in his talk involves posting stats about bicycle commuters crossing the Harvard bridge. If you knew that 2,500 bikers crossed the bridge today (instead of staring at the 5 bikers out your window), that might persuade more car commuters to give biking a try. Commuting by bike would then be viewed as a more normal activity and not something that a weird minority engages in.
The project I participated in was about testing a mobile app protype that hopes to turn skittish / reticent cyclists into more confident urban cyclists through a voice-based coaching app. Eager to improve my own cycling and to mix up my kickscooter routine with some bigger wheels, I signed up to test out the prototype. Project team member Matthias Wunsch greeted me outside the Media Lab and handed me a smartphone and some basic Apple headphones. At first, the coach told me to practice rapid braking. Once I had mastered this move, I was ready to start my urban ride on the busy streets of Kendall Square.
I finally got my hands on the eMicro from Micro Scooters a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been having a blast riding it around Boston. I also took it to Long Island, New York over Memorial Day Weekend. As I wrote about in an earlier post, It’s the lightest electric scooter on the market at 16.5 pounds. With this new vehicle in my arsenal, I can now travel much farther with less effort. The picture below of the scooter’s box cover provides its key stats:
Light does not mean flimsy. On the contrary, it is made of high quality, robust parts and it is incredibly high-tech. The scooter is motion-controlled which means that the motor engages based on the rider’s movements. To make sure the rider is ready for the motor to kick in, she/he has to be going at 3mph before the motor engages. The back of the deck is packed with sensors and when you perform a scooter kick, the scooter will continue to accelerate until it reaches a maximum speed of 15 mph. This “kick assist” technology makes riding more fun when compared to riding a standard electric scooter that is either “on” or “off”.
Peer-2-peer businesses have permeated every retail segment, from real estate to camping equipment. In the personal transportation space, individuals have been able to share bikes (see Spinlister) and cars. But, those seeking alternative wheels (think Segways, electric scooters and unicycles) haven’t had a P2P space to go to, until now. Geneva-based oWheelClub recently launched to give individuals around the world the opportunity to rent a unique set of wheels from early adopters. P2P for these unique products makes a lot of sense, both for consumers and manufacturers of these new vehicles. The platform will allow individuals to try out expensive products before they commit to a purchase. The founder of oWheelClub also sees the service meeting the needs of travelers who want to visit a city differently and providing a new type of entertainment.
If you live in Boston, my solar panel electric scooter is now available for rent (cheaper than renting a Segway for the day BTW). So, for all of you who secretly desire to try an electric scooter, no more excuses: oWheelClub makes the transaction smooth and transparent. Check it out!
Here is a roundup of the latest in electric personal transportation equipment covered by Gizmag or discovered on Kickstarter:
Electric rollerblades: I had seen off-road roller-skates and roller blades before but I had never come across electric rollerblades until I read about Polish inventor’s Jack Skopinsi new off-road electric rollerblades. He designed these in response to customer requests for portable personal transportation that could be carried in a bag. Cost is around $1,200.
Jack Skopinski’s Off-Road Electric Rollerblades
Electric scooter and e-bikes: ETT industries designed one of each. As Gizmag reports, the firm won a design award for the bike’s unconventional industrial design. The range on these vehicles is 50 miles (impressive) after a 5-hour charge. The scooter can travel up to 45 km/h while the bike’s top speed is 25 km/h. Scooters are more expensive at $3.8K while bikes are $2.4K.
As a scooter enthusiast, I was very excited to learn about La Galoche, a new French company building an innovative kick scooter, or trotinette, for daily commuting. The founders spent hours brainstorming product ideas with the aim of tackling some of the earth’s most difficult challenges: global warming, unhappiness, and obesity. They all agreed on the kick scooter as the logical answer. As a daily kick scooter rider myself, I couldn’t agree more. Their ambition is to create a scooter that is more elegant, high-tech and functional than the typical adult scooter. Some of the scooter’s unique features include: a built in light, hand and foot breaks, a carrying handle, and a mobile app that gives navigation instructions, tracks calories and distance.
The company is part of an incubator (Transalley) based in Valenciennes (northern part of France) focused on transportation / mobility start-ups. In March 2016, they won first place in a mobility start-up competition with their prototype. They are now looking for manufacturers in Northern France. Best of luck to the La Galoche team during the production stage. I can’t wait to test drive their scooter next time I am in France.
As a Boston citizen, I am paying attention to the city’s bold transportation plans started by the late Mayor Menino in 2014. Called GoBoston2030, the city’s transportation initiative should be a model for other cities to follow when tackling big policy issues:
It takes a citizen-centric view of transportation; it’s about how people get around and not public transit, biking or walking
Program goals are holistic; changes should lead to equity, economic and environmental improvements
The program engages citizens in building the future. The City just spent the last 18 months gathering feedback from citizens through multiple street and web-based initiatives such as an “Ideas on the Street” pop-up (bike-trailer) that visited 31 neighborhoods over a period of a month.
The GoBoston2030 initiative generated 5,000 questions about transportation and 3,700 project and policy ideas. Next week, GoBoson2030 gives citizens the opportunity take part in scenario building workshops with policy leaders, planners and engineers where this feedback will turn into possible projects. I intend to be there and will report back.
Crowdfunding sites have seen a growing number of happy commutes related projects over the last few years, from electric bikes and scooters to high tech backpacks and clothing. As I find new products with potential to enhance commutes, I will write about them, or, at a minimum pin a picture of them to Pinterest. A key goal for Happy Commutes is to create an outlet for more user testing of new commuting gear to help innovators reach their funding goals.
Boston-based readers!:If you see a commuting product that catches your fancy, give me a shout. If I get enough interest, I will try to secure a demo version for trials.