Micromobility is a business; active mobility doesn’t have to be

Issue 142

Hey urbanists,

I hope you’re well. It’s been six weeks since my last rant about micromobility, so I figured it was time for another. Don’t worry, there’s good reason, as you’ll see.

I don’t have much of an update this week, so enjoy the issue!

Paris Marx

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If you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, it might not come as a surprise to hear that I don’t have a very high opinion of micromobility — which I define as the dockless rental services, not as almost every possible type of vehicle smaller than a car (as some of its boosters propose). This week gave me yet another reason to see it as the antithesis of the world (and the cities) we’re trying to create.

Horace Dediu, an Apple analyst who became one of the biggest boosters of “micromobility,” tweeted earlier this week that micromobility “is a service, not a product” because “there’s no vehicle business I know of which doesn’t have services as a large part if not majority of its profit.”

Let me translate that: bikes, scooters, and other small modes of transportation need to be a service of some kind, that you have to pay for on an ongoing basis, not because that will be what works best for you as the rider, but because that’s what works best for the tech companies trying to monopolize and make big profits off this new industry they’ve just “discovered.”

But how’s that actually working out? The dockless bike and scooter companies haven’t been doing so well financially lately. They’ve also been trashing thousands of perfectly good bikes and scooters — an extension of how disposable the companies see them, as research and reporting has consistently shown that the vehicles don’t last long at all in the rental fleets. The micromobility service model has also led to a higher environmental footprint for scooters than many other non-auto transport modes. Oh, and don’t forget how these privately run services are often more expensive than public bike-share or personal ownership in the long-run.

We’re coming off a century of auto-oriented planning — a system that not only privileged elite transport desires, but which prioritized profit-making and capitalist expansion over what actually improved quality-of-life for the majority of urban residents. (James Wilt has a great free course about this through Passage.) Automobility costs us more in many ways: more of our tax dollars are spent on infrastructure for low-density, sprawling communities; we’re forced to pay high sums for cars (and maintenance, insurance, gas, etc.) when we could just be collectively contributing to a great transit system and using bikes for shorter trips; and then there’s the road deaths and environmental destruction.

It’s clear we need to get away from a system that puts profit before our lives, and that means a transport system that revolves around transit and bikes can’t be obsessed with how to generate profits for blood-sucking venture capitalists at our expense. Owning a bike, replacing it every decade, and maybe getting some maintenance every now and then is not nearly as profitable as automobility was, which is why the micromobility folks are desperate to find a way to wring more money out of us.

But maybe the transport system shouldn’t be designed to generate huge profits and corporate power. Maybe it should instead be designed for social connections and to enhance human well-being. What a concept!

Critical urbanism

For Jacobin, I wrote about why we need to plan the post-pandemic transportation system to serve the public good, not private profit. As more evidence comes in, it’s clear transit isn’t putting people at high risk of COVID-19. “What kind of society values property over black life?” New poll shows Europeans don’t want to let cars take over their cities and bring back air pollution. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo promises lower speed limits, fewer parking spaces, childcare subsidies, and a radically redesigned beltway if she’s reelected. ‘Netflix for bikes’ service seems good for short-term use, but not if you’re planning to use it for a long time. Airbnb listings down ~20% in major cities in Canada, while rents in Toronto are down ~10%. In the absence of public spaces, BLM protesters are creating areas of their own. Australian competition watchdog ruled Lime didn’t disclose flaw with scooters that injured riders. Over the past two months, US bike sales saw their biggest spike since the 1970s oil crisis. With COVID-19 under control, people in New Zealand are flocking back to transit. Politicians in Southern California are yet again trying to kill high-speed rail. Bike sales in Bangladesh have hit historic highs. Transit workers an activists are fighting for free transit in Edmonton.

Tech dystopia

Worker surveillance tools track racial diversity to break worker solidarity. Jeff Bezos says he’ll testify in front of Congress — with conditions attached. Tim Cook will also face Congress after the EU announced two antitrust investigations into Apple. Facebook is still deleting the accounts of Palestinian, Syrian, and Tunisian journalists and activists despite using “free expression” as its defence for not removing Donald Trump’s posts. In Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin “illuminates how cutting-edge tech so often reproduces old inequalities.” The FBI is tracking protesters through social media posts. Amazon has a new patent to collect an unprecedented amount of data from sellers, including their entire supply chains. Jathan Sadowski argues it’s time to dismantle surveillance tech.

This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to OneZero senior editor Brian Merchant about how Amazon’s response to COVID-19 has put its workers in danger and how big tech companies are partnering with oil and gas companies. 

Climate crisis

Emissions are surging as countries reopen, showing once again that changes must be structural, not only the level of individual consumption. The world has six months to change the course of the climate crisis. A heat wave in Siberia is linked to an oil spill, wildfires, and moth swarms. BP wrote off $17.5 billion in the value of its assets.