In recent years, there’s been a lot of buzz about micromobility, a term that varies depending on who is talking about it. Some writers only consider it to include shared vehicles of small size, while others limit the term to small electrified vehicles (whether personally owned or shared). Most writers would probably agree that the vehicles must be small (Wikipedia says under 500 kilos), and that micromobility is something new that’s going to expand and take a big chunk of the transportation industry.
But when it comes to micromobility’s newness, it’s not hard to imagine Marvel’s Thor squinting and asking, “Is he though?”
The Most Popular Vehicles, Ever
If someone asked you what the most popular vehicle ever made was, how would you respond? I’m sure the answer would depend on where you live. If you asked a random person in the United States, you’d probably get the make and model of a car for the answer, and the most produced car is the Toyota Corolla, with tens of millions made globally over decades.
If you asked somebody in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia), you’d probably hear about motorcycles. The most popular motorcycle ever (and the most popular motor vehicle ever) is the Honda Super Cub, a smallish underbone. With over 100 million produced, the Super Cubs far outnumber Corollas, and similar motorcycles outnumber cars by a wide margin globally.
Bicycles have been made in even greater numbers globally, and are popular across a broad range of different world regions. The most popular mechanized vehicle ever produced is the Flying Pigeon in China. With well over 500,000,000 made, the Super Cub and Corolla look almost rare by comparison. Overall, bicycles probably outnumber other forms of transportation, but the numbers of all makes and models together are harder to gather.
Either way, there’s a global historical trend toward smaller, lighter vehicles. Electrification (aided by better battery tech) is new. Sharing (aided by smartphone adoption) is new. But smaller vehicles? They’ve always been the global king.
China Challenged The King & Lost
Before I traveled outside of the US, I wouldn’t have thought that bicycles were important for transportation. It just wasn’t culturally accepted as a means of transportation. Can you bike for fun? Sure. Can you explore the backcountry or take bikes places that cars don’t fit? Maybe. But for getting from A to B? No. That’s for the poorest of the poor.
A church function I attended illustrated this perfectly. Some family friends had recently moved back to the US from China after living there for years. We’d see them biking everywhere, because they were now accustomed to it and enjoyed it. They had a minivan, and it ran well, but they just didn’t want to use it for short trips. During a church barbecue at a local park, their family came rolling up with their bikes, and a bike trailer for the littlest ones. When they were packing up to pedal back home (maybe 2-3 miles away), a crowd formed around them.
Despite insistence that they actually wanted to bike home, people spent at least 10 minutes harassing them with offers to put the bikes in a pickup truck and drive them home. One older church lady even attempted to guilt trip the parents for “taking the kids out in the cold like this” (it was August…in the desert). Finally, they relented and loaded their bikes up in the back of a truck, and rode in a minivan home.
It wasn’t until I lived in Asia later that I understood it. I lived in a relatively rural area in Taiwan, but tons of people biked everywhere. For short trips, they took the bike. For medium trips, they’d take a scooter if they had one. For long trips, they’d bike to the train station. It was super easy to just get on and go, and the roads were designed to readily accommodate it. Even moving back to the States later, it was hard to give up the ease of just jumping on and going.
I was surprised to find out later that China had a similar moment to what the family friends went through at the barbecue. With increasing wealth in the late 1990s, car ownership started to explode in the cities. Not only was this because people could afford it, but government efforts to reduce density in the cores of cities and get more people out into the suburbs made driving a real necessity. There was even a push to reduce the number of “inferior” vehicles in the city cores because accidents between cars and bikes were becoming more common.
While they did have great success in upping the percentage of people driving in cars and reducing bike traffic, the whole thing backfired. Beijing’s ring freeways often crawled to a standstill while people moving on bikes were at least moving during the busy hours. Increased pollution, more accidents, and dependence on foreign oil all led the government to change course, leading to car restrictions. They decided to rethink development policies, and make it easier to bike or walk. New bicycle highways were even put in.
The world tried to push China to get rid of the bikes and ride in the car, like my old friends, but it just didn’t work out.
On top of that, battery technology led to a boom in bike use. With dozens of miles of range, less fatigue and sweating, and all of the advantages of a small footprint, electric bikes accelerated China’s bicycle renaissance of the mid-2010s. People who had been forced out of the urban core by the government were once again able to ride in to work, because distances matter a lot less when you can sustain greater speeds without doing all of the work.
But if Bikes Are Already King, Why Didn’t This Happen In Other Places?
The obvious answer is that in other places, the bicycle wasn’t as entrenched as it was in China before the government tried to push it out. That isn’t the whole story, though.
I was surprised to learn that when it comes to per capita bike ownership, China wasn’t at the top, nor was it even in the top 5. Germany is #1, with 80% of people owning a working bicycle. Japan, Thailand, Poland, Chile, and Vietnam are all ahead of China, too. China is at #7, with 65% of people owning a bike. Even the United States, the capital of car dominance, is competitive, with 53% ownership.
What this shows us is that owning and using are two very different things that we have to look at independently. There are lots of places where most people already own a bike, but either don’t ride it much or only ride it for fun. The real hump to get over is not getting people to buy one, but getting people to ride it for work and errands.
Statistics on bike use bear this out. Growth in use of bikes doesn’t rely on how many people own one, but on how friendly a place is to biking. Cities could put shared bikes and scooters everywhere, but if people don’t feel comfortable riding them, they’re not going to ride them.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The bicycle is not only a dominant force in China and some European countries, it’s a sleeping giant in many others. Even if we can’t tell that bikes are important, there’s a lot of hidden demand just below the surface, waiting to break through the ice.
The challenge at this point is figuring out ways to make places bike-friendly without inspiring resistance, but that’s going to have to be the topic of another article.