Would you rather walk or drive to the corner store? Most people have a quick answer to that question: it’s either close enough to walk to all the time, only during good weather, or never. That decision is based not only on distance but also road conditions, safety, pedestrian-friendliness, and relative atmosphere (who wants to walk even a short distance next to a factory or plant?). But despite the impacts of those other variables, some research shows that distance really is often the primary factor in the walk versus drive question.
With that in mind, a recent study done by transportation-focused big data company Inrix, showing that out of the top 25 U.S. metro areas Inrix considers the most congested, 48 percent of all car trips are under three miles in length. For Inrix, this represents an opportunity for micromobility solutions, urban transportation options like bike sharing or e-scooter rentals.
Putting aside any questions about the study itself, it’s probably hard to argue that micromobility is a growing issue around the country, for better or for worse. In fact, Tucson is launching its e-scooter pilot program this week. This represents a substantial deviation from business as usual in the world of urban transit, as the scooters add an entirely new class of transportation to the areas they pop up in. And they bring with them a host of challenges that have made them a bugbear for municipalities all over: competition with cyclists and pedestrians; cluttering street corners and sidewalks; their ability to send completely untrained, inexperienced users rocketing down the street at high speeds. One need only visit a city like Los Angeles or Phoenix to see what planners and others get so upset about.
At the same time, one need only visit those cities, and actually ride the scooters, to see how attractive they are for getting around congestion and how convenient they are for quick trips around the city. Cities may gripe about micromobility, but by and large they’re being forced to face it and write responsible policies, whether they like it or not. Municipalities aren’t alone, either: real estate owners are poised to face the same challenge.
Managing micromobility has several elements for property owners. One angle is to optimize spaces for parking and charging of e-scooters and e-bikes. As micromobility comes to represent a larger and larger part of how people get around, things as simple as having a convenient parking location could make the difference between a retail space that gets a visit and one that doesn’t. One solution comes from Cushman & Wakefield, which recommends allocating unused parking for scooter drop space. Taking that a step further, developers can situate street furniture and curb cuts to maximize scooter ease of use. On that same note, particularly for offices and multifamily buildings, it’ll be important to make sure there are always scooters or bikes on site. It isn’t enough to just permit visitors to drop their scooters off near the building; allowing the building’s occupants to access the micromobility network is also important. Offering courtesy helmets could also be a good way to build goodwill with tenants.
Another part of the micromobility question for owners and investors is researching what else is within a micromobility-accessible distance from their portfolio properties. Retail real estate has always involved trade area analysis, but I expect that part of the planning process to become even more important in the future. The average scooter trip seems to be around 1.5 miles, as studies in various cities show. A property within a scooter-appropriate distance of shopping, services, and recreation will probably have a different degree of attractiveness compared to properties that are only close enough to other attractions via car or those that are close enough to be truly walkable.
In the longer term, the reality is that between ridesharing and micromobility, traditional car ownership will likely decrease. For owners, this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it should be a reminder to keep parking lots replaceable with other uses when the time comes. Of course, when you start thinking in terms of “automobile elimination” timelines, the number of other forces that could impact transit and parking planning begin to multiply. Today’s other transit news, a large investment for a German air taxi company, is testament to that.
In a more immediate time frame, micromobility is growing whether cities and individuals like it or not. The market is at a point now where we as built environment professionals can choose to act reactively or proactively. For now, the question is still “should I walk or drive to the corner store?” But soon enough, the corner store’s owners are going to have to ask their own question: will customers walk, drive, or ride?