The future of urban mobility: trends and innovations

Sep 19, 2023

urban mobility

Emerging technologies like electric and self-driving cars, smart traffic management, and micromobility have tremendous potential to improve how we move. But are innovations like these the future of (public) transport, or does the answer to sustainability in urban mobility lie elsewhere?

In this article, 4 Bolt experts share insights and predictions about the mobility industry. 

You’ll hear from Dmitri Pivovarov, Vice President of Rentals, Mikhail Shcheglov, Group Product Manager, Venus Lim, Director of Central Operations and Jaanus Uiga, our Environmental Manager.

Self-driving cars are a hot topic. Do you see them becoming widespread in the near future? What do you see as the pros and cons of self-driving cars?

Despite the hype, I don’t think self-driving cars will become a widespread phenomenon in the mid-term, especially in the ride-hailing industry. There are multiple constraints:

  • Equipment is prohibitively expensive. You need 2–3 lidars (~$8k apiece) to enable high-level automation and movement.
  • Operations are expensive. A car requires a fully-fledged 3D map for each city, and 4/5G cellular costs due to constant map downloads might be expensive at scale.
  • Mobility companies would need to make huge investments and own cars. Whereas currently, we can rely on driver partners.

These costs would either be covered by the ride-hailing provider or included in the trip price, rendering the company uncompetitive against other operators. And if we add regulations to the mix, the whole model becomes even more shaky.

In a nutshell, there’s currently no viable business model for self-driving cars. And until the asset and operational costs go down (~3–7 years), they will remain a purely experimental category.

To be fair, self-driving cars are quite widespread now, with 30 million driverless cars out there. However, they may not be as concentrated in Europe as in China and the US. But I think they’ve become widespread enough for us to say this trend will continue in the coming years.

The pros of self-driving cars are:

  • Great for the environment and massively reduced carbon emissions.
  • Generally safer in terms of driving behaviour, e.g. less human error. 
  • Cost reduction due to driving efficiencies, fuel costs, and decreased travel time. Fewer drivers needed per household.
  • Good input for making road and traffic infrastructure more efficient and safer. (Self-driving cars drive with 1 style versus billions of humans with different driving styles).

The cons of self-driving cars are:

  • Powering self-driving computers/systems emits hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.
  • Hardware efficiency must dramatically improve to prevent such massive emissions from piling up.
  • While driving could be safer and smarter, there are still safety risks because machines can fail.
  • We don’t know all the indirect consequences of increasing the number of driverless cars.

Are government incentives for electric cars and policies designed to encourage their adoption efficient, or should more be done? Are electric cars going to save the world?

Absolutely more should be done. Many European governments are on track with their sentiments, policies, and mandates. However, the truth is it’s currently still more expensive to own an EV vs. a non-EV. Charging infrastructure is also not catching up with electric car production, creating many chicken-and-egg problems for cities.

Electric cars saving the world sounds like a simple enough solution, but, unfortunately, they’re not the whole solution. Resources still have to be mined and used to produce electric vehicles, so the total environmental impact is definitely not zero. They also take up as much space as petrol/diesel vehicles, so the fewer cars we need, the better.

Electric cars are the second best option to reduce the transport sector’s environmental footprint. The first is fewer cars on the road.

As it’s unrealistic that the number of cars will drop significantly anytime soon, we must also bet on electric vehicles. EVs cut local air emissions to zero and make significantly less noise than their fossil fuel-powered brethren.

There is no ‘silver bullet-type’ solution. A combination of measures is needed to achieve climate neutrality in the transport sector. 

Governments (both local and country-level) have a lot of power here: from making fossil-fuel-powered cars less comfortable to use and designing more people-friendly cities to making other means of transport (including public transport) more accessible and comfortable.

These changes are unpopular among car owners and take years to show real results, so it’s understandable why not all governments are ready to work with these topics just yet.

“To reach a climate-neutral future, making changes is unavoidable. The sooner we start, the more time we have to adjust and the more leeway we have for local specificities.” Jaanus Uiga, Environmental Manager at Bolt

Integrated transport systems (mobility-as-a-service) improve city mobility by bringing together various options like trains, buses, ride-hailing, and micromobility in 1 app, where the user can easily plan, book, and pay for journeys. How popular is mobility-as-a-service among cities, and which cities stand out?

Mobility-as-a-service is popular enough for the market to exceed 230 billion US dollars worldwide. Cities that are a good example of integrated transport systems are those with a high Urban Mobility Readiness. Europe dominates the field with cities like London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Helsinki.

I see the mobility-as-a-service trend as it is now, slowly dwindling. Cities required MaaS-readiness from mobility companies 2 years ago. The focus has now shifted to parking and safety regulations. 

Some MaaS providers managed to secure licences in a few large cities, e.g. Jelbi in Berlin, Ruter in Oslo, and Trafi in Brussels. Whether they’ll be renewed in the upcoming years is unclear.

Mobility-as-a-service sounds promising on the surface, but it’s actually a complex business-to-government model with long decision-making cycles. Securing a single city takes 2–3 years.
There’s little added value for regular commuters and a substandard product experience if the MaaS provider is a mediator without their own vehicles. They cannot fully support every single operator’s whole safety, parking, and compliance workload.

“At Bolt, we believe mobility companies that provide the vehicles and work directly with customers are best positioned to be successful as mobility-as-a-service providers. Bolt, with our multi-modality offering, is already one of them.” Mikhail Shcheglov, Group Product Manager at Bolt

Bolt has experience providing cities with data that could be used to improve urban transport. Are cities ready to start using advanced technologies and data-driven strategies, e.g. smart traffic management, to optimise traffic?

On average, we’re just at the beginning of our data-sharing potential with cities. 

We have data standards in place to exchange basic fleet and city area information. The next step would be related to tactical urban issues and infrastructure — utilising the power of immense datasets collected from our vehicles. 

Only afterwards can we approach something as complex as traffic modelling. Getting to smart traffic management would take a few years. 

Having worked for the Government of Estonia for many years, I know firsthand that the public sector is full of people who want to do meaningful work and help create a better future. It all comes down to what tools are available.

Suffice to say — there are always more urgent problems to solve than resources. This is where the private sector can help. We can work on implementing solutions and delivering them to customers — but only if the right frameworks and incentives exist.

What sets Bolt apart from other scooter operators is that we’re a multimodal platform. 

We have data not just on scooters and e-bike usage, but also on car-sharing, ride-hailing, and delivery trips. We see cities already using our micromobility data to create parking spaces based on pickup and drop-off hotspots.

The next step for cities is to use our data to understand the most popular micromobility traffic routes. This data can help prioritise bike lanes where they are needed the most. Protected bike lanes are the most impactful safety solution for bicycle and scooter users. 

Finally, cities can use our combined data from all multimodal trips on the platform to understand what areas of the city are underserved by public transport.

The micromobility industry’s developing fast, with multiple companies operating and new features and infrastructure developed all the time. While some cities integrate micromobility into their public transport network, others limit their use. When will the market mature, and what will it look like?

In Europe, passenger cars travel hundreds of billions of kilometres every year, so we’re far from the full potential of the micromobility sector. Each kilometre we cover on fully electric vehicles like scooters and e-bikes reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improves the living environment in cities.

Two trends are going to shape maturity. First, the merging of efficient and ethical players.

Second, cities embracing micromobility as a benefit, not a vice. Micromobility is essential for connecting people with public transport — 30% of trips are already taken to or from a public transport stop. 

Prohibiting micromobility or trying to constrain it with mandatory parking areas reduces the value for the customer and the positive impact microvehicles can have on transport as a whole.

Many cities are realising that shared micromobility can reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. The most progressive cities embrace competition among operators and allow more electric scooters and e-bikes on the streets. In turn, this encourages commuters to switch from cars to micromobility.

Initially, the sharing industry faced challenges with fleet management, leading cities to limit operators through tenders and licenses. But that was 5 years ago. Since then, the industry has matured, and all operators have advanced protocols to keep city streets in order.

With that, tenders and fleet caps became outdated methods to regulate micromobility as they reduce the availability of electric scooters and e-bikes to commuters, increase prices, and discourage innovation among operators. Luckily, more and more cities are realising that.

“Operating in 250+ cities across Europe, we see a much higher micromobility adoption in cities that embrace competition and regulate operators through rules, not limits. In these mature markets, micromobility is widely available, reliable, and affordable.” Dmitri Pivovarov, Vice President of Rentals at Bolt

Flying cars, eVTOL aircraft, air taxis, etc., may reduce congestion but will bring new problems. Do you agree that most everyday discussions about the future of mobility focus on some exciting form of technology that will solve everything?

I don’t believe that any silver bullet-type solutions that magically fix everything exist. Complex problems need a combination of solutions.

We don’t know which new technological breakthroughs the future brings. But while these exciting solutions are still being developed, we should take advantage of the market-ready measures (such as micromobility, car-sharing, and ride-hailing) that can be implemented at scale.

I understand where the allure is coming from. It’s an exciting and simple generalisation. Most likely, the change will be more complex and come from a synergy of transport modes.

I think the conversations are happening but never positioned as a silver bullet because that’s a bold claim to make. Transport is in the best interest of public safety because a real-life human is on board that vehicle, regardless of what that vehicle is. 

If we want to encourage the right type of dialogue, we need to talk about the landscape surrounding that medium as much as the medium itself.

Which innovations and trends do you think will be part of the future of mobility, and which are just sci-fi?

The technological advances in the 20th and 21st centuries have made many of the things considered sci-fi a reality, so it’s difficult to say what will be sci-fi in the future. My guess is that we’ll not be able to start using teleportation as a mode of transport anytime soon. Everything else is about cost.

Microcars will most likely get more traction as public space becomes limited and parking more expensive. E-bikes will eat up the market and outrun classic bikes in terms of sales. Everything self-parking or self-moving isn’t sci-fi but is currently too costly. Flying vehicles or easy-to-produce superconductors are currently a fantasy.

Self-driving vehicles, drones, and Hyperloop are realistic but not yet ready for household adoption. I think the rather unrealistic examples are hoverbikes or flying pods/hotels, etc. — those need a whole journey of unlearning everything we know today.

“I really believe in changing the face of car ownership. It doesn’t make sense to own a vehicle with costs increasing yearly — especially in cities, where all other options are faster and more affordable than a car. One central mobility app and reducing car ownership are achievable trends.” Venus Lim, Director of Central Operations at Bolt

Creating sustainable urban transport requires a comprehensive approach that includes mobility, urban planning, technology, and policy. What are some of the key challenges this causes?

The key challenges are the government or authorities within a country and the readiness of the city to move forward (measured by the Urban Mobility Readiness Index mentioned above).

I’d say the main challenge is communication. The more complex the solution, the more difficult it is to communicate to the relevant stakeholders. Change is hard. Without proper communication and stakeholder engagement, it’s even harder, if not impossible.

Urban planning concepts like car-free zones and 15-minute cities highlight that a sustainable city is not car-centric. What are the key principles of urban planning that support sustainable transport initiatives?

For a car-free city to work, the city needs to ensure there are alternatives for personal cars. And public transport alone can’t cover all mobility needs.

The problem is the area you need to cover increases, and the population density decreases, the further you go from the centre. So, having a dense public transport network in the suburbs becomes extremely impractical. 

That’s where shared mobility is the most beneficial. It adds flexibility and helps public transport cover a bigger area — at no cost to the city. We’re already seeing about 30% of scooter trips ending up at public transport stops. So people rely on micromobility as the last-mile solution that supports using buses, trams, and trains.

It boils down to incorporating the external costs of economic activities into decision-making. Currently, ‘somebody else somewhere in the distant future’ is paying the price for local and global pollution.
Suppose the real cost of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, suburbanisation, and urban sprawl are taken into account locally. In that case, we’d have no other choice but to start implementing urban planning best practices such as 15-minute cities or zero-emission zones.

Accessibility and equity should be the key planning principles. All citizens, regardless of income, should have access to basic infrastructure within walking distance.

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