Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | How to get about town is more than just a ride

The big changes ahead in urban mobility will intersect with our lives in many ways

They glide on what looks like a kiddie razor scooter, weaving in and out of cars, cycles and pedestrians alike. These dockless electric scooters are swarming many cities of Europe. I saw them in use all over Berlin, one of the world’s most-loved-by-millennials cities and was reminded of our kiddie scooters that you would drag along to gain momentum and then hop on the platform to ride the next 20 metres, steering with a scooter-like handle. A micro urban mobility solution has taken these kiddie playthings to the next level by adding a better body, motor and a link to an app. The pesky mobile platforms with a handle are proving to be both an efficient solution for very short distance travellers—between the tram stop and the office—or by tourists who have all day to cruise along, and are proving to be an urban nuisance since they are too new (just about a year old) for meaningful regulation. The older Berliners are not impressed and hate the fact that users will simply leave the micro vehicle in the middle of a pavement and walk away. Micro urban legends talk about instances of irate citizens picking the gadget up and chucking it in the river Spree!

Every new leap of tech use leaves a trail of cheers and abuses. India is far behind big changes in urban mobility though Delhi is recently experimenting with some micro urban mobility solutions. If you wondered what the colourful almost-bikes chugging away next to your vehicle in Delhi are, you should know that you could be on-boarding one of such almost-vehicles soon once the last mile issues are worked out.

The big changes ahead in urban mobility will intersect with our lives in many ways and affect our different avatars of consumer, worker and investor differently. As a commuter, the choices open up of how we want to travel and what we want to own. In Berlin recently, after dinner, a friend suggests that we go look at the Festival of Lights (where important buildings are lit up to dispel the imminent gloom of a Berlin winter). I start to pull out my U-Bahn card but he says, let’s take a car. Okay! But I don’t remember him driving into dinner or him having a car. He taps an app and a car nearby beeps its presence. We all hop in and zip off. We use the car and then park and tap: close ride. And he’s back to taking the S-Bahn to return home. Between the tram, the bus, the U and S-Bahn, app-based scooters and bikes, app-based rent-a-car and regular and app-based cabs, he says, he simply sees no point in owning, maintaining and servicing a car. As urban commuters, our lives change when the city (and technology) allows us to move around seamlessly in a safe and cost-effective manner.

Our lives as employees changes as well. App-based taxis have changed the face of taxi rides in the world. Bad news for the old taxi drivers who did not shift to the new way. But drivers with some enterprise have been able to own their cars and are today far better off than a few years ago. When tech and population changes happen, our lives as employees undergo deep changes. In every kind of work, look at the changes in other industries because we tend to over-estimate our own role in our own spaces of work, and then think why change will not come to you. Instead of opening your mouth to scream, use the energy to re-skill.

Our lives change as owners of capital as well. The old kaali-peeli taxi owners have mostly transited to owning fleets of cars with the app-based firms that they rent out to drivers with no capital. Investors who use the stock market for their equity exposure will also see the changes in how people travel, work and live, in their returns. Car production has been down in India as people are buying fewer cars—could it be that the way the young think about urban travel is very different than the older generation and are buying fewer cars? Or could it be that large scale urban mass transit programmes, like metros (tree cutting or not notwithstanding) are causing people to rethink car ownership. As investors, look at the way tech is changing lives and work and then rethink your investments.

Change driven by tech, AI, robotics and the internet is coming at us and will affect all our avatars – the worker, the consumer, the investor. Better to be prepared. Me? I’m waiting for my drone taxi ride!

Monika Halan is Consulting Editor at Mint and writes on household finance, policy and regulation.