Turns out I don't ride a scooter so much as a "micro-mobility model," and I'm part of a trend away from traditional cars. I don't fit the demographic (Gen Y urbanites) and my scooter doesn't quite fit the model (no combustion engines) but I am on the right curve. Small is the new beautiful.
The global research company Frost & Sullivan defines micro-mobility models as electric bikes, cars without doors and pod cars. (Those are basically private cars that run on tracks above a city; they have some at Heathrow Airport). But the general idea is models that are small and cheaper to buy and cheaper to run than automobilies. The Frost & Sullivan study predicts that 150 new products that match the micro-mobility model will be introduced by 2020. The authors do warn that two things could dampen the growth of these models: a slow build-up of electric vehicle infrastructure and increased spending on public transportation.
There's no evidence that an electric vehicle infrastructure is building up in Canada and no sign in my city that there's a boon ahead for public transportation. A scooter powered by the small amount of gasoline it needs still makes sense as part of this future picture in my part of the world.
This got me thinking about why the trend is happening. There are obvious answers, of course, like high energy costs and the lower buying power of many young people today. At a conference in San Francisco last month, a venture capitalist named Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, came up with a suprising conjecture. He said that one of the tipping points (a phrase he borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell) for the increased sales of electric bikes, scooters and motorcycles was SARS. According to his theory, the contagious and deadly disease created a fear in the Chinese population of riding on buses and other forms of public transportation so electric bikes and other two-wheeled motorized vehicles became a reasonable alternative. The need increase in production led to a broader increase in popularity.
I think in any debate on the future size of vehicles we have to consider how we are going to use them. What is needed for high-speed highway driving - where larger vehicles may be needed for safety - is not the same thing as what's needed for city streets. I haven't figure out how to get to my work that's some distance out of town on a small vehicle. But what if we could figure out other ways to get people to the edges of cities where they could then get in their micro-mobility models.
I had a glimpse of a future that seemed pretty damned exciting years ago when I directed a TV piece on Canadian-born Paul Moller who has spent the better part of his adult life trying to develop a flying car: the Skycar. The prototype works; it lifts up like a helicopter and is steered by a computer. Moller didn't see skycars as urban transportation but as a way to get from the country to the city or from city to city - avoiding highways altogether - where riders would switch to small electric cars (and, in my mind, scooters) and use those to get around town. Maybe that seems too much like science fiction - think Bladerunner and Fifth Element, but using micro-mobility models in town makes so much sense. Think of all the parking lots that could be halved in size; think of city smog alerts as a rare summer occurrence.