Shared mobility services are considered an effective urban mobility option in major European cities. In most of these cities, inhabitants can choose from a large range of shared vehicles (scooters, bikes & cargo bikes, mopeds and cars), which perfectly complement to public transport.
But shared mobility services should not remain a privilege of big cities. Of course, the model cannot be fully replicated from Berlin (population: 3.7m) to Ingolstadt (137,000). However, if stakeholders accurately identify local needs, sustainable shared mobility options can also flourish in cities under 200,000 inhabitants.
Let’s try to identify the key factors of success in medium-sized cities.
N.B. In this article, 'big cities' will refer to cities with over 200,000 inhabitants whereas 'medium-sized cities' will designate cities from 100,000 to 200,000 inhabitants.
Can it work with all types of vehicles?
Analysing data from 70 cities monitored by fluctuo, we can estimate the presence of the different vehicle types, depending on the size of the city.
Shared scooters are available in 81% of big cities … and in 85% of medium-sized cities. Trends follow different paths for other vehicle types. If shared bikes, mopeds and cars are all available in 40 to 50% of big cities, the proportion decreases with the vehicle size.
One explanation is the lower CAPEX required to launch small vehicles, especially e-scooters. It makes it a flexible and low-risk service (whatever the city size). The perfect match for a medium-sized city or small local operator willing to test a shared mobility option! Launching a car-sharing service, where 1 vehicle costs as much as 35 e-scooters, requires a huge investment that can rarely be made by local operators.
Another aspect to consider is the operational complexity which grows with the size of the vehicle. For example, a fleet of e-scooters with swappable batteries, and a fleet of cars with fixed ones (and thousands of other components) require very different levels of experience to manage.
Contrasting landscapes across Europe
The situation varies greatly from one country to another. Shared micromobility options are scarce in medium-sized cities in France, Spain and Portugal. In France, shared scooters services are available in Perpignan (201,000 inhabitants) and Dijon (195,000). One might nonetheless find some local services with little advertising, such as Bik’air, a bike sharing company with a focus on medium-sized cities, operating its main projects with 100 bikes in Nevers (35,000 inhabitants).
In Italy, the opposite is the case: there are several local operators - such as Bit Mobility or Helbiz for scooters - which are accelerating launches across the country. Bit Mobility operates 19 services, 70% of which are in medium-sized cities. Many services are available in touristy areas (Pisa, Rimini) with a high degree of seasonality, but also in Bergamo (121,000 inhabitants), Taranto (195,000) or Lecce (95,000). Bike-share operator Movi also provides services in Reggio Emilia (172,000, Ferrara (135,000), Mantova (50,000), and in popular destinations like Caorle or Venice.
Germany is also a good example, where TIER are setting the pace. The operator is active with e-scooters in around 50 cities in its home country, from Berlin (3.7m inhabitants), Hamburg (1.8m) or Munich (1.5m)… to Gütersloh (100,000), Kaiserslautern (100,000) and Herford (65,000). Medium-sized German cities also play host to many shared moped services, operated by local companies: NERO in Norden (25,000), meli in Meppen (35,000) and Lingen (54,000), Hero in Detmold (75,000) or Moritz in Bruchsal (45,000). All of them are operating a few dozens of mopeds in these small urban areas.
In the UK, where shared scooters are authorized under pilot programs, many medium-sized cities - Barnstaple (20,000), Redditch (78,000), Bath (90,000) and Yeovil (45,000) - embraced this new transport option with open arms, much faster than bigger cities that face longer decision-making processes.
As shared micromobility expert Oliver O’Brien states: “Political complexity has held back large cities, London being the perfect example. Medium-sized cities also used the situation to get attention, at no cost”. London’s e-scooter sharing RFP is actually defining the local landscape, smaller projects being used as a showcase of operator’s abilities. “If major foreign operators such as Tier, Bird or Spin do not get licences to operate in London, they might exit the UK market” according to Oliver O’Brien.
Except in the UK, where the situation is unique, the development of shared mobility services in medium-sized cities relies on local operators able to provide a sustainable service thanks to their knowledge of the transport needs in these territories. Movi and Bit Mobility in Italy, and TIER in Germany, are all developing tailor-made projects in their home countries.
What are the challenges for operators ?
Some operators are specifically targeting small and medium-sized cities. Damian Young, CEO of Zeus, an Irish company operating 3-wheeler scooters, believes that “large cities such as Berlin are over served with micromobility services’’. The company is therefore willing to “offer a service for all citizens, as a complement of public transport options, in tier 2 and 3 cities”. Being involved locally, understanding the local mobility needs, are key aspects for the service's development. Damian Young highlights the example of Wolfsburg (175,000 inhabitants), where Zeus managed to convince the city’s authorities to trial e-scooters after years of refusal, thanks to regular meetings after the opening of a local office.
Operating a shared mobility service in a medium-sized city is slightly different to a large city, from the operator’s perspective. Firstly, most cities are adopting a hub-based policy, making it mandatory to end trips in designated parking zones. Operational teams don't have to cross the city to gather single vehicles, all in different spots, but can go from one zone to the next to charge and maintain a batch of vehicles. In the UK, Oliver O’Brien confirms that “all 17 services with under 80 e-scooters, operated by Beryl, Ginger, Zwings, and Zypp follow a marked hub policy”.
Using hubs potentially solves an operational conundrum: to find the balance between widespread vehicle availability, making sure that riders are always within a 5-minute walk of a vehicle. For it to work, operators have to nail the fleet size, the quantity and location of the hubs - which requires a complex understanding of local travel patterns. Multimodal hubs can allow some operational costs to be shared between operators, whilst encouraging intermodality with public transport when located near major train, metro or bus stations.
Major operators’ experiences in large cities have helped to build a sustainable operational model that can easily be adapted to medium-sized cities. Nicolas Gorse, GM for France and Belgium at Dott, confirms that those cities are also a target for Dott:
“With our experience in Bordeaux (where a fleet cap of 100 e-scooters per operator is in place), we managed to build a financially sustainable model even with such a small fleet and high competition”.
Dott is also operating in Namur (110,000) and Liège (195,000) in Belgium, using its warehouse in Brussels as the regional repair centre.
“The scooters' reliability and robustness increase means that very few vehicles need to be brought to Brussels for important repairs. First level maintenance can now easily be done on field with one operator for a couple of hundred scooters.”
Zeus operates under the same model in several German cities: “What we call the 'hub and spokes' model offer high flexibility. Our staff can focus on some cities with higher ridership, or on specific maintenance tasks at the main warehouse during winter”.
Medium-sized cities have to make do with tight budgets. Most of them will welcome the opportunity to offer a new mobility option to their inhabitants at no cost (and sometimes for a profit, thanks to licensing fees). If you compare it to the launch of a new bus route, for example, shared mobility options offer an unbeatable business model. Scooters have emphasized these advantages, with a lower CAPEX and its ease of implementation and operation.
It's not just scooters - except shared cars, other types of vehicles have found a way to launch and stay in medium-sized cities. The example of shared mopeds in Germany or shared bikes in Italy show that local operators who have a deep understanding of the local mobility landscape, can offer sustainable services - even in cities under 50,000 inhabitants.
The new generation of vehicles (featuring swappable batteries) could be the key to dramatically reducing operational costs. This could open new horizons to shared mobility operators in medium-sized cities.
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