Is Micromobility A Movement, Or Just An Investment?

To unlock the revolutionary potential of small electric vehicles, the micromobility movement needs more diverse voices.

Courtney Erlichman

“Equity is not just about your cap table,” the MC reminded the audience at last week’s Micromobility California Summit, held across the bay from San Francisco in Richmond, California's Craneway Building.  More than 600 attendees had poured into what was once the largest Ford factory on the west coast to take stock of the fastest-growing trend in mobility.  We were gathered together under Horace Dediu - the analyst who predicted the explosion of the iPhone - to celebrate his next forecast: the disruption of the transportation system by the new wave of micromobility and with it, the market for miles (see Niedermeyer’s excellent wrap up of the event here).  

But let’s not talk about miles, let’s talk about people.

The large, airy industrial structure the Summit inhabited was drenched in transportation history, serving as a beacon of disruptive innovation and the democratization of personal mobility.  It was also home to the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, which honors the first women working in war industry and lauds the new social constructs formed to resolve the challenges they faced.  One such obstacle was the women worker’s need for childcare, which ultimately led to the establishment of the early childhood development profession and the opening of child development centers. Though the potential parallels between the rise of the car and the emerging micromobility movement are clear, what's less obvious is whether the growth of small electric vehicles would bring about similar social progress.

Some early signs suggest there is a lot of work to be done. After taking my seat in the third row of lecture-style seats I took a half-selfie with the audience behind me for my first tweet of the day. It instantly received a comment: "Says great things about your industry when a snapshot of your conference shows women outnumbered by men ~20:1 and not a black person in sight.”

Courtney Erlichman

Dediu's keynote unpacked his predictions that were framed as an “unbundling” of the automobile, just as we unbundled from the personal computer to mobile phones.  The gist of his beautiful graphs was that moving from inefficient geometries to smaller, human scaling not only delivered freedom but significant market potential. Here, in Dediu's myriad data points, was the massive opportunity: to create a more perfect alignment between our real needs and our chosen tools of mobility.  

But if the economic opportunity that micromobility presents can be made clear with numbers alone, the social opportunities take considerably more imagination.  Ursula K. LeGuin insisted that when a sci-fi author imagines the future, they are engaging in a thought experiment about the possibilities of technology and the subsequent impact on society.  In fact, predicting futures and situating them in the present-day status-quo of gender relations, essentially ignoring the social mutations that tech creates, are deemed to be the “Galactic Suburbs” of the genre.  

Alex Roy, Director of Special Operations at Argo AI [and columnist at The Drive! -Ed], commanded attention during his high-energy talk on Universal Basic Mobility.  He urged the audience to view mobility as not only a human right but as the number one path out of poverty. Roy went on to posit that the only “trolley problem” is that trollies are underfunded and that all modes lead to transit. Meanwhile, Twitter was heating up with more comments about the lack of women in attendance. Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, a data-driven mobility platform for cities, tweeted, “this was primarily due to demographics of the VC/ startup community (92% of VCs are men, investing in 98% of companies led by a male CEO)”

Outside during a break, I spotted two African-American women, wearing high-viz shirts standing over their personal bicycles looking at the rows of e-bikes parked outside. I greeted them and encouraged them to come into the conference to learn more. They were curious but apprehensive as they looked inside, “it’s all men in there.” They declined with a smile, bid me goodbye and rode off. The potential for UBM and the democratization of mobility that micromobility presents won't become more than just potential unless more diverse voices are part of the conversation, particularly the voices of those who are poorly served by the current car-dominated paradigm.

Courtney Erlichman

Will our mobility future reflect the make-up of the Micromobility Summit, driven by profit and almost devoid of women and diversity?  Will it be incubated in the galactic suburbs, doomed to repeat the mistakes of our transportation past?  Will we not only take time to consider the inequities created as new technologies were deployed at the outset of the last century but go further, stitching them directly into our thinking as we redesign the system? 

Solving such structural deficiencies takes an enormous upheaval across industries and and require us to dislodge long-held cultural beliefs.  This is never an easy lift. I cannot claim to have the ultimate solution, but I can offer a handful of suggestions that can lead us towards a more inclusive future: 

•    Follow the Reilly Brennan Policy: No manels.  Do not participate in or create panels that don’t include diversity. Refer to Brennan’s list of Emerging Women Startup Leaders in Transportation, Mobility & Autonomous Vehicles, add to it or create your own list of diverse experts. 

•    Offer “advocate” rates at events to eliminate financial barriers from participation. 

•    Flex the Alex Roy rule: As a white male, energetically facilitate meaningful connections, offer opportunities, and mentor.

•    Adopt the Leslie Richards Rule: The Secretary of PennDOT insists any firm that requests a meeting with her bring at least one woman from their team.  Practice it. Daily.

As we stand at this inflection point gazing out over the new frontier of mobility, let’s decide to not only extract value from miles and solve inequities in our cities but also steer well clear of the galactic suburbs.

Courtney Erlichman is a subject matter expert and consultant on transportation technologies, connected and automated vehicles, shared-use mobility and smart cities. She has run multiple USDOT research groups, co-founded an automated road condition survey company called RoaodBotics, and currently serves on the state of Pennsylvania's autonomous vehicle task force.