‘Micro mobility’ cuts commutes

Moving Well | Story: Steve Colquhoun | Photos: Julian Kingma | Posted on 17 June 2019

How scooters and folding bikes are transforming commutes.

As you sit in a traffic jam or jostle onto a packed train, it might not be obvious that your commute to work is in the midst of a revolution. We’re not talking jetpacks or flying taxis just yet. But new technology and thinking could transform the so-called ‘first mile’ or ‘last mile’ of your journey right now, or over the next few years. 

Walk to the bus or tram stop every day? You could soon be zipping along on an electric share scooter that’s faster and more fun. Ride a bike to the train station, then lock it up? Try a lightweight bike that folds in less than 20 seconds to a size not much bigger than a briefcase and can be carried on public transport, then reassemble it for the ‘last mile’ to the office.

Commuting has fragmented into a series of shorter journeys because, for many, a single car trip from door to door isn’t feasible. Congestion, spiralling parking fees and the costs of car ownership mean a carefully stitched patchwork of options can be faster and cheaper than driving.

Dr Ern Chang on his Brompton folding bike

Geelong-based Dr Ern Chang uses a folding bike for his Melbourne appointments. 


Elliot Fishman, director of Melbourne’s Institute for Sensible Transport (IST), says as Australian cities become denser, commuters tend to use cars less efficiently. “At suburban railway stations, 30 to 40 per cent of cars will have travelled one to two kilometres to take up a car parking spot for eight or nine hours,” he says. “Achieving efficiency in terms of energy and space is something we need to work harder on.”

The terms ‘first mile’ or ‘last mile’ travel describe the short commute from home to meet a main form of transport – typically a train, tram or bus – and/or an onwards commute from that transport to the workplace. These trips are considered the most complex and difficult to cater for, since every commuter has a different starting point and destination.

Stuart Outhred, RACV’s senior planner, mobility futures, says traditional modes such as driving, walking, cycling and public transport can mix and match with new options – ride-sharing or car share services, micro-mobility devices such as electric scooters (e-scooters), bikes and skateboards, or share bikes.

“There’s a huge amount happening overseas at the moment in the area of micro-mobility that is just starting to bubble up in Victoria,” he says. “Walking or riding to and from the station are the healthiest options, but for time-poor commuters micro-mobility may be a compromise that doesn’t require a car.”

Changing the way cities move people is never straightforward. Planners need to accommodate disruptive technologies that typically evolve faster than laws can change. 

Innovation in this space is genuinely positive, but systems need to be well managed and designed.


“E-scooter schemes have seen huge growth in many cities around the world, but it’s vital that the policy settings are right in terms of how they fit with other transport modes and the demands on our street space,” Stuart says.

The issues facing micro-mobility are clear in the example of US company Lime, which is rolling out e-scooters internationally. It’s running a trial in Brisbane, and completed one at Monash University’s Clayton campus last year. 

Its scooters are powered by a 250-watt motor and capable of speeds up to 27kmh, offering nimble and efficient pay-as-you-go commuting. Lime can reduce its scooters’ speeds to any set by government. In Victoria, legislation allows electric scooters of up to 200 watts and speeds up to 10kmh on level ground. Therefore, it is effectively illegal to ride higher-powered scooters anywhere but on private property. 

Vaughn Allan, an IST transport analyst, says the Victorian government will closely monitor the rollout of e-scooters. “There are some points of wariness from the US experience, such as a higher-than-expected rate of crashes. There is still a question over whether people have the skills to safely operate e-scooters.”

Stuart Outhred cites oBike, the Singapore-based bike share company that departed Melbourne after 12 months, having fallen foul of authorities after bikes were left littering streets, thrown in the Yarra or even hung in trees. 

“Innovation in this space is genuinely positive, but systems need to be well managed and designed. Operators need to make sure they’re not creating more problems than they’re solving.”

Dr Ern Chang carrying his Brompton folding bike up the stairs at the train station
Dr Ern Chang holding his Brompton folding bike on the train station platform
Dr Ern Chang on his Brompton folding bike on the train station platform

Ride on

Dr Ern Chang (above) embraced the concept of first-last-mile travel when he bought a Brompton folding bike. The Geelong-based GP sometimes commutes to Melbourne to visit suburban clinics. He rides his bike to meet the V/Line train at Geelong station, then from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station to his appointments.

“By not getting stuck in crazy CBD traffic, I can get from point to point faster than a car, and without the parking fees,” Ern says. He also needs to manage his commute to fit the train timetable, carry a change of clothes, and make sure there’s the time and facilities to shower at his destination.
 

1. E-Scooters 

Cost: $700-plus. Lime scooters cost typically $1 to unlock a scooter, then 30 cents per minute. 
Ease of use: A smartphone app is used to unlock hire scooters, scattered around urban areas. 
Rules and regulations: Only scooters unable to travel faster than 10kmh on level ground and with maximum power under 200 watts can be used on footpaths and bike paths. Helmets, bells and brakes are required.

2. Brompton folding bike

Cost: Starts from around $2200 at Melbourne’s Brompton Junction.
Ease of use: Bikes take 20 to 30 seconds to fold or unfold, and can be carried onto public transport for use at either end of a commute.
Rules and regulations: Normal bicycle road rules apply, including bell and helmet requirements.

3. Skateboard 

Cost: Starting at around $30. 
Ease of use: Highly portable for carrying on board public transport but requires good balance. 
Rules and regulations: Victorian law treats skateboarders as pedestrians. They must obey pedestrian road rules and must not ride on roads with a speed limit over 50kmh, in bike lanes or if there is a dividing line or median strip.