After a decade of rapid growth, shared mobility has confronted new challenges with COVID-19. Shared mobility refers to transportation modes in which services and vehicles are shared among users. This includes app-based ride-hailing, carpooling, and car-sharing, as well as micro-mobility services such as bikes, e-bikes, and electric scooter fleets.
From the start, these services promised an array of environmental, quality-of-life, and social equity benefits for cities. Yet the real-world impact of services varied greatly, and some modes worsened problems that advocates hoped shared mobility could address. The arrival of ride-hailing or shared scooters in a city often created headaches for regulators and residents alike.
But the exigencies of COVID19 changed the shape of the shared mobility boom in ways that may outlast the pandemic. Fewer residents are commuting to city centers. Public transit, which remains vital, has seen sharp declines in ridership even as it continues to carry far more riders. Longstanding problems like the climate crisis remain a vital threat.
The adaptability of shared mobility makes it a potent tool to address these challenges, even as the urban context has transformed. As cities seek to adapt their transportation systems for post-COVID needs, how can policies concerning shared mobility help them meet shifting goals?
Exploiting Changing Preferences
Before COVID-19, shared mobility experienced massive and unruly growth across the sector. App-based ride-hailing services grew in just a few years to source billions of trips annually, with Uber boasting 111 million active users worldwide in 2019. Bike share services also grew exponentially, with the estimated number of systems going from under 100 to about 2,000 between 2007 and 2019. Nearly as soon as shared e-scooters appeared in 2018, they began outpacing bike share ridership in many cities. The frenzied growth was memorialized by The Guardian, whose viral photos of discarded dockless shared bikes captured the volatility of the urban transportation scene.
Over the past two years, the shared mobility boom has changed, with some modes thriving under new circumstances. Ride-hailing lags, with Uber’s ridership still well below that of 2019. Bike share, however, is thriving under COVID-19. The sector grew its global revenues by one-third in 2020, even as public transit ridership—and commuting overall—dropped. Many systems continue to see ridership grow, with London, New York, and Chicago boasting ridership records in 2021.
The strength of bike share likely reflects shifting consumer preferences, including a global growth in demand for bicycles and the mode’s perception as a COVID-safe method of travel. It also creates an opportunity for cities looking to take advantage of the environmental, congestion, and quality of life benefits of bike travel. Expanding bike share service, creating safe infrastructure, and offering incentives for riders can further build on this change in travel preferences to improve city life.
Aligning with Global Goals
In several countries, passenger vehicle-miles traveled exceeded pre-pandemic levels by mid-2021. Aligning local policy with global climate goals can spur cities to integrate shared mobility into climate plans. At COP26, for example, signatories to the Declaration on Accelerating the Transition to 100% Zero Emission Cars and Vans acknowledged that to meet climate goals they must look beyond electrification to modes such as bicycles, e-bikes, and scooters, especially as part of shared fleets. The declaration was signed by dozens of subnational and city governments including Seoul, New York City, Bogota, Rome, and São Paolo.
Indeed, many of the most proactive cities in promoting shared mobility have developed climate action plans in concert with C40 Cities. Milan’s climate action plan included repurposing 100 kilometers of street space for cycling and walking by the end of 2021. Paris’s ambitious plan argues that the city must embrace “shared mobility for fewer cars in the city,” and cites the city’s Vélib’ and Autolib’ bike- and car-share programs as models.
Complementing Mass Transit
Around the world, public transit—the backbone of urban mobility—has seen sharp declines. In London, for example, bus ridership has dropped by about one-third while Tube ridership has dropped by about half. Ridership losses tend to be most pronounced in areas where residents tend to have white-collar jobs which can be done remotely, whereas working-class and low-income areas have seen much smaller declines.
Traditional transit service remains essential for workers and for cities’ functioning, and certain policies can position shared mobility as a complement, rather than a competitor, to mass transit. Longstanding efforts to develop integration between modes, such as seamless “mobility as a service,” can encourage sustainable, multimodal trips centered on transit and supported by shared modes. Partnerships between shared mobility operators and transit agencies can offer incentives to combine ride-hailing or bike-share and bus trips, thereby feeding riders to reliable, efficient traditional transit.
Many transit systems are built to bring workers from the urban periphery to the commercial center, even as fewer riders are making these trips. As systems adapt, shared mobility’s strengths as an efficient first- and last-mile solution can help cities meet residents’ needs.
From Milan to Paris to New York, many cities have changed their approach to shared mobility as social distancing and changing travel patterns abound. For residents, one potential benefit of these approaches is to make the mobility system—and the city as a whole—more resilient, sustainable, and livable even after the pandemic subsides. The unique adaptability of shared mobility enables services such as bike share, car share, and ride-hailing to meet cities’ changing goals as they navigate unpredictable events.