Taking micromobility to the next level

If people can easily view the most time efficient and least polluted route on an e-scooter, it could be a powerful tool to increase the use of sustainable transport.

From left: Associate Professor Yun Sing Koh, Professor Gill Dobbie, Xuejun Shang, Ziyi Jiang.
From left: Associate Professor Yun Sing Koh, Professor Gill Dobbie, Xuejun Shang, Ziyi Jiang.

We wanted to ask, how do we change the way people commute? How do we get people out of petrol cars and into public transport?

Associate Professor Yun Sing Koh

Rode an e-scooter somewhere recently? Even if you haven’t, chances are you see others using them every day, especially on the city streets, with many urbanites eagerly adopting them into their daily commute.

Here in Auckland it doesn’t take a scientist to deduce why. Auckland’s lack of dependable public transport in many areas has long been a point of criticism. Options exist but often leave you short of your final destination, requiring you to drive or walk to a station or bus stop on either end of your trip. This gap (the ‘last mile’, as many in urban transport call it) is where micromobility comes in.

What is micromobility?
The term micromobility refers to the use of lightweight vehicles that typically move at speeds under 40km/hr, and that are operated by the user as opposed to say, a rickshaw, which has a separate driver. This has quickly become an exciting area for research, and the Micromobility Research Partnership (MRP©) is part of this ongoing push for a better understanding of how we can best leverage micromobility to improve our cities, funded by Beam.

The MRP© is an independent research body, comprised of researchers from a range of institutes across Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, and globally, working with data supplied directly by Beam, one of the major e-scooter and bike rental companies with a presence here and in Asia-Pacific, where it is the biggest operator. The partnership aims to promote micromobility and sustainable transport research, to explore its impact on health, environment, and other UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Associate Professor Yun Sing Koh and Professor Gill Dobbie of the School of Computer Science have both been involved in the MRP© since it began earlier this year. “We wanted to ask, how do we change the way people commute?” says Yun Sing, “How do we get people out of petrol cars and into public transport?

“I want to help people understand how much air pollution they are emitting and how much they are exposed to. And we were excited to find a way to marry these together. From that starting point we decided to reach out to some companies, and one of them was Beam,” she explains and Beam agreed to share their data. Thereafter the MRP© was launched to formalise academic collaborative research in Australia, New Zealand and globally, with the University of Auckland as a founding academic institution.

Safer, cleaner and cheaper transport
One of the reasons public transport is a popular topic now is the ongoing focus on inflation. As fuel prices rise, people are looking for alternatives.

“If people are using micromobility, and we can make those options healthier and safer, it’s going to be better,” says Gill, adding, “…when we are looking at air pollution, we are looking at traffic. As fuel prices rise, we hope people will drive less, and cut emissions. That’s what Xuejun and Ziyi are working on.”

Xuejun Shang, an Honours student in Computer Science, is working with the MRP© data. “We modelled air quality using air monitors around Auckland as anchor points to interpolate across a wider area,” Xuejun explains. “You can see levels change over the day with rush hour.”

Fellow Computer Science Honours student, Ziyi Jiang, is using the data for a related project. “I extract historical route data from the scooters to find which routes are best, based on time and pollution.”

“Between the University and Britomart for example, we wanted to find the three best routes from the perspectives of time and exposure to air pollution,” Gill says. “Maybe you’re willing to go a bit further,” Yun Sing adds, “if the route is telling you the air is cleaner on the way.”

Ultimately, it’s hoped that routes like these will be served directly to users while travelling, to further encourage people to opt for micromobility and public transport, as opposed to driving short distances.

Ferdinand Balfoort, Managing Partner of the MRP©, notes the urgency in finding effective ways to address air quality and pollution issues, especially in developing countries. “According to the WHO (2021) 4.2 million people die prematurely each year from outdoor pollution. That does not factor in the long-term disabilities caused by poor air quality, nor the impact from respiratory ailments in the severity of Covid infections, as has been noted academically.”

Hurdles and challenges
“One really big benefit of working with Beam and MRP© is having access to data,” says Gill. “Often, that’s the thing we struggle with the most.”

“The ability to get the data and actually use it in real time is very useful,” agrees Yun Sing. “It means we can test our ideas with data that’s always current.” But in the context of decarbonising transport in general, how does the life cycle of an e-scooter hold up from a sustainability perspective? It’s important that new technology we invest in to help us overcome modern transport challenges is resilient and sustainable.

This is another important research focus of the MRP©; it is developing mathematical models to determine the full LCA carbon footprint of e-scooters – from manufacturing to end of life – to see what emerges from Beam operational data compared to other transport modes and

In the future, this sort of research will be useful as part of the Government’s commitment to reduce transport emissions. Researchers working within the MRP© have already started thinking about the possibilities of collaborating with Government agencies or local Council on their own micromobility projects and sharing their findings to improve policy, including on the development of e-hubs and Mobility as a Service (MaaS).

The next big challenge is getting good air pollution data. Both Yun Sing and Gill agree that more air quality sensors out and about in Auckland would be a big improvement, and Gill notes that “if Beam started to mount air-quality sensors [directly on the scooters], that would be great”.

Riding into the future
Looking ahead at the project’s future, it’s easy to see how leveraging this data could encourage more people to use micromobility. “There’s lots to do still,” says Yun Sing, “but the ability to optimise the routes is actually quite exciting itself. We can build more complicated projects on top of that foundation… [for instance] the Turing Institute has been working on routes in London, exploring options for serving users the most beautiful route.”

There are also papers reporting on similar projects in cities like Beijing and San Francisco. Beijing in particular stands to benefit from suggestions for low-pollution routes, as air-quality is a more prominent hazard there.

“We’d like to start finding the safest routes too,” says Gill. “And beyond micromobility, we’d like to look into including walking but that’s a bit more difficult to collect data for, of course.” With so many different researchers from various institutes working together, the MRP© is an exciting frontier for learning more about how we can improve urban liveability, and a great example of utilising real-world data. “It’s been good to work on an applied project,” Xuejun notes. “It’s incredible to build something where we can look directly at the results out in the real world.”


This article appears in the 2021 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni. View more articles from inSCight.

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