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A journey to micromobility

Before I tell you about mobility options, I'll walk you through how I transitioned from car-dependent suburb-dweller to mobility-obsessed urbanite.

Car-owner

I started driving at 15 years old. In my home state of Arkansas, car ownership is essentially required. I put 60,000 miles on my car in the 5 years I drove there, and that's probably below average use.

At 21, I moved to Seattle for work, and I found myself in a totally different mobility landscape. Seattle has light rail, streetcars, a usable bus system, and is dense enough to walk in the urban core.

My first day on the job, I noticed one of my coworkers had a skateboard under his desk. He commuted by bus and used the skateboard for the last-mile leg of the journey that would otherwise be walked. This was a married-with-kids, white-collar professional in his early 50s. Dorothy was not in (Ar)Kansas anymore.

Despite living in a relatively dense city by American standards, I still managed to put another 5,000 miles per year onto my car. I still hadn't seriously considered alternatives to car-oriented life.

Dense urbanite

I didn't have any deep realization while carefully weighing my mobility options — it actually all happened accidentally. I moved into an apartment above a grocery store in Chinatown that happened to be across the street from a light rail station, and a few blocks from the rock climbing gym I frequented.

Suddenly, I could get all my groceries and go to my main hobby on foot. I could commute to the office by walking across the street and taking a 5 minute train ride.

When it came time to renew my parking permit, I decided to get rid of my car. I went to move it and the battery was dead from disuse.

Urban periphery

Jessica moved in with me during the Chinatown years. There was a lot to love about the area, but eventually we decided to check out West Seattle. It's a little further from downtown and has a more laid back pace.

In West Seattle, I commuted on the generally-decent city bus for a few years before eventually getting an e-bike. The e-bike was fantastic. I commuted to and from downtown Seattle — 15 miles round-trip — every day. Commuting by e-bike was actually faster than any other mode of transportation: only 25 minutes. The trip took 35 by bus or car. My office allows dogs, so I even towed Sampson in a trailer meant for children.

In Seattle's rainy season I would typically switch back to a bus for commuting. Even in those months, when raining lightly, biking is still totally doable and a nice change from the bus.

After a few years, we liked the area enough to commit to a house. It was a bit further from West Seattle's commercial core than our apartment, so I had reason to e-bike to errands. I also now had reason to make a lot of home-owner-y trips to the hardware store.

Still having a strong preference for small, low-impact vehicles, I got a kei truck. I wrote an article about it if you're curious.

Then the global pandemic hit in 2020, and I literally left West Seattle fewer than 10 times the whole year. It's also the year I discovered even more mobility options and embraced the zen of urban transit.

Micromobility

Mobility for ants, obviously.

Micromobility, to me, refers to modes of transit that are approximately less impactful than a motorcycle. Things like bicycles, skateboards, scooters, or just plain old feet.

In this article, I'm only discussing the newer additions to this space: small electric modes of transit that can be used for local trips. I figure anyone who wants to bike or walk for their errands is already doing it. But people may not be fully aware of the rapidly-developing class of small electric options.

I think adopting these options is one of the best lifestyle improvements you can make if you live in an urban environment.

Why change up your mobility?

Driving is not actually enjoyable

That's only slightly hyperbolic. I know plenty of people love nothing more than driving a responsive car on a winding mountain road, doing laps on a track, or just cruising the waterfront at sunset. I'm not talking about that kind of driving. I'm talking about getting from point A to point B in an urban environment. Driving to the grocery store. Driving to the gym. Driving to get takeout.

People think they might enjoy this sort of driving, but I suspect they really enjoy being at the destination. The driving part is just coincidental — a Pavlovian attribution.

If people had magic carpets or Star Trek teleporters that were even more convenient than cars, they would use them for most of these mundane trips.

Automobile enthusiasts would keep their toys around for the fun of it, but the rest of the world would move on. The act of driving is just a means to an end for most urban trips.

Driving is actually unenjoyable

Let me extend my hyperbole. Again, I'm not saying that all driving sucks. Just a lot of it.

I don't think most people actually introspect on the amount of driving-induced latent tension in their lives. I know I didn't.

As I mentioned in my transit history, I lived in a pretty small radius during the 2020 pandemic lockdown. West Seattle is roughly a square with 2 mile sides, and I stayed in that box with few exceptions.

Most destinations I would have driven to were closed due to the lockdown, so I didn't have a good reason to leave. I was also — slowly but surely — coming to realize I was happier living a life where car-use was minimized.

I should mention that we're super fortunate to live in a place where this lifestyle is possible. It would not have been easy in the places I've lived in Arkansas.

As things started to open up more in 2021, I found myself behind the wheel. Within a mile I turned to Jessica and said "I hate driving. I didn't realize how much I hate driving until not driving for a year. This is awful."

There's a reason people get road rage. It's a stressful environment. It's legitimately dangerous. You're relying on all these other people to all follow some agreed-upon rules while driving 4000 lb speeding hunks of metal. Deviation from the rules can actually kill you and others. So it's totally understandable to get angry if someone doesn't use their turn signal or cuts you off.

Driving in traffic shares too many characteristics with actual psychological torture: Random threats of danger, loud noises, angry people, mind-numbingly repetitive stop-and-go traffic that is not quite trivial enough to completely check out, but not interesting enough to engage you.

Why do we subject ourselves to this more than is absolutely necessary? What if there were another way? What steps can we take to reduce our car dependency?

The options

E-bike

Electric-assist bicycles should be the default option for a micromobility neophyte. They have a lot of things going for them. They are safe and stable, can carry decent cargo, have the farthest ranges, and are a familiar form-factor that won't draw attention. They are probably the most practical choice for the vast majority of people's trips.

It's not all perfect for e-bikes. I find locking a bike to be mildly annoying, even if it's not actually any slower than parking a car. Finding secure, overnight parking can also be troublesome if you don't have a garage. I kept mine inside our apartment for safety, but it took up a non-negligible amount of space.

E-scooter

After e-bikes, the second most common form of micromobility is the electric scooter. In most big cities, shared e-scooter fleets are scattered all over — often a little too scattered.

E-scooters share a lot of the advantages of e-bikes: speed, range, stability, and ease of use. A notable deficit is the lack of cargo carrying capacity.

E-scooters can largely be divided into two classes. On one end, you have compact devices that weigh less than 30 lbs. They can be folded and carried, typically go around 20 mph, and have 40 mile range. Then you have beefy models that weigh 100 lbs, can (terrifyingly!) go over 70 mph, and have 80 mile range.

There are models that represent intermediate points between these extremes, but I'm going to make a slightly controversial assertion about e-scooters: for the purpose of micromobility, only the small, portable variety of e-scooters make sense.

Don't get me wrong, the larger e-scooters can be very fun recreational devices. I know folks in Seattle with these devices who take them on long joyrides and adventures. But as practical modes of transport for everyday errands, they are outclassed by e-bikes. E-bikes are safer, more discreet, can carry cargo, and optionally provide some exercise.

On the other hand, small e-scooters fill a niche that e-bikes do not. They are small enough to be taken into stores, stowed under office desks, and kept inside the home. A bigger e-scooter has similar performance to a bike, must be stored like a bike, so you might as well get a bike.

Self-balancing

There two main devices in this category: Electric unicycles (EUC) and Onewheels. Both are built on the same inverted pendulum control loop technology. The computer actively engages the motor to keep the single wheel beneath the rider.

The main difference between the two self-balancing options is stance. EUC riders have both feet positioned side by side, in a line perpendicular to the direction of travel. Onewheel riders have the same stance as a skateboard.

The main advantages of these devices are their small size and hands-free operation. You can take them inside easily and ride them by standing and shifting your weight slightly. They are also a lot of fun. Even though they don't have any real cargo capacity, your hands are free to carry a couple of grocery bags.

The biggest disadvantage is safety. You're really relying on the computer inside the device to do proper self-balancing. If it were to have an issue, you could go flying. I've never heard of this happening, but it's theoretically possible.

Another — more minor — disadvantage is that these devices are still not common enough to go unnoticed. They attract more attention than e-bikes or e-scooters.

I have a Onewheel. I find the stance a bit more intuitive than an EUC, and I feel safer riding it. I have a lower end version that only goes 15 mph, and that is plenty fast for me. If I'm going to spend 20 minutes in the grocery store, it doesn't matter to me if it took 2 minutes longer to get there. Some of that is also made up by the time saved not dealing with car parking or bike locking.

For something that I mostly got as a pandemic toy (urban planning zealotry was not a part of my life in early 2020), it's been the most eye-opening device for me when it comes to micromobility.

The concept it really drove home for me was friction — or rather the importance of reducing friction. I'm not referring to the mechanical friction in roller bearings or brake pads. I'm referring to planning and execution friction of taking a short trip.

I keep the Onewheel right by the front door. When I want to go grocery shopping, I just pick it up and walk outside. I'm zipping down the sidewalk within 10 seconds. A few minutes later, I pull up right to the front door of the store. I don't need to worry about parking or locking up a bike. I dismount and stow the Onewheel on the bottom shelf of the grocery cart. I do my shopping and leave.

For quick trips where I know exactly what I'm getting, the whole quest takes 15 minutes. Just enough time for the oven to get to pre-heat.

Along the way, I pass my neighbor walking their dog. I feel the fresh air on my face. I get into the flow of riding and clear my mind. I don't have to worry about blind spots or fender benders. I can see clearly in any direction just by turning my head, and being in the open air means I can hear everything around me.

Making grocery trips so smooth and enjoyable has completely changed my relationship to cooking. Now, I look forward to making a grocery run to get the exact ingredients I want for a dish. Or, if I'm ever cooking and realize I'm missing something, it's not a big deal. I could use a breath of fresh air anyway.

Micromobility meets public macromobility

The main complaint with public transit is the first and last-mile story. Once you're on the bus or train, it's pretty fast, but if you have to walk for 15 minutes on both ends of your trip, even a short distance can take an hour door-to-door. This is a non-starter for people with time constraints.

Micromobility changes this. I can Onewheel to the nearest light rail station 2 miles away, ride the train 7 miles, and then Onewheel another 2 miles to a friend's house. The whole trip takes 40 minutes door to door. I spend 20 of those minutes browsing the internet on a smooth and quiet train ride. The trip costs a total of $3.50 — half the cost it would be by car, as you'll see below.

A cost analysis

To illustrate that micromobility can be financially wise, let's imagine you're a theoretical average adult living in an urban area. You make weekly visits to a grocery store 2 miles away, a close friend 3 miles away, and a favorite restaurant 5 miles away. Round-trip, this comes out to 20 miles of local trips per week, or about 1000 miles per year.

The cost of car travel

Astoundingly, the all-inclusive cost of car travel is $0.57 per mile. This is an overestimate for our purpose, because it includes things like car insurance, which you will still be paying unless you go entirely car-free. There do exist per-mile insurance schemes, but let's not over-complicate things.

Taking into account just the per-mile costs of fuel, maintenance, and depreciation, we arrive at the still-surprisingly-high number of $0.28 per mile.

Your 10 mile commute? That's costing you $1400 per year just to get to and from work.

The cost of e-biking

An entry-level e-bike costs $1200. It cruises at 20 mph, and gets around 30 miles per charge. The cost of a full charge is around $0.05. The biggest cost is actually replacing the battery every few years. Li-ion batteries degrade over time. The battery on the e-bike linked above is rated for 800 charges.

Taking all these numbers into account, the total cost works out to $0.02 per mile.

Health benefits

Exercise boosts the immune system, reduces inflamation, and improves mental health. It's difficult to put a price on health, but it's obviously a non-zero value. The average American spends around $1200 per year on out-of-pocket medical expenses. I don't think it's unreasonable to guess that biking 20 miles per week would reduce your annual medical expenses by 10% ($120) on average.

Maybe you get sick one less time than you would otherwise. Or maybe you feel better about your mental health, and reduce the frequency of your sessions with your therapist. Or the exercise helps stave off serious and expensive conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

So if we guess that the suggested e-biking saves you $120 per year in medical expenses, the associated cost is reduced to negative $0.07 per mile. This brings the delta between driving and biking to $0.35 per mile.

So your initial e-bike purchase price would be offset in just 2 years. In other words, an annual rate of return of 40%! That outperforms the S&P 500 handily.

If you are physically able to bike, live in a place where biking is feasible, and you currently make local trips in a car, it would be financially unwise not to get an e-bike.

Valuing your time

If you value your time highly, it is possible that this net $0.35 cent per mile disparity does not seem worth it. After all, cars go a lot faster than bikes, right? Not by much for local trips.

E-bikes comfortably cruise at 20 mph, and you wouldn't expect to do much better than 25 mph on average in a car, once you take into account stopping at lights and such.

But in this analysis, we're talking about just 20 miles worth of local trips per week. So maybe it's 60 minutes of biking vs. 40 minutes of car driving. Who doesn't have 20 minutes per week to spare? Spend 20 minutes less time on social media per week. Replacing that with 20 minutes of physical activity is certainly a net win for your mental health anyway.

A note on safety

Micromobility cannot safely be applied in all places. Many modern American cities are hostile to any trips made without a car.

A good heuristic here is to ask if it's even physically possible to safely make a trip on foot. Note that I'm not advocating that anyone actually walk 5 miles to run an errand. This is just a thought experiment: if time weren't a factor, could you safely walk your trip?

If the answer is no, you probably live in a place where this article does not apply. If you really care about urban mobility, you will probably need to relocate or start lobbying your local politicians to create pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

This latter point opens up a giant topic of "how to retrofit mobility options onto modern American cities". This topic is outside the scope of this article, but I will be writing about it in the future.

Closing thoughts

I'm not a full-on anti-car zealot. Cars have their place. But other devices have their place too. Being flexible with our mobility options can seriously improve your life. Just give it a chance.