Pandemic-era planning makes it clear: Micromobility companies brought a distraction, not a revolution

As the coronavirus crisis hit, the prospects for micromobility companies only went from bad to worse. (Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

When micromobility companies like Lime and Bird rolled into cities around the world in 2018, they promised to revolutionise the way people move around. They dropped dockless bikes and e-scooters onto streets from the United States to New Zealand, asserting that the convenience offered by a shared vehicle that could be left anywhere would help usher people out of their cars and around their city centres.

But the system they vowed to disrupt has itself changed dramatically this year. People stopped moving around as the coronavirus spread, and their spending on transportation plummeted. Cars disappeared from streets virtually overnight, and support rose sharply for measures to keep it that way after cities reopen.

What’s playing out right now is nothing short of a transportation revolution – but somewhat unexpectedly, cities have a great deal of control over it. As they take urgent action to reshape their streets in an unusual moment, it’s clear that this change is possible without the micromobility industry that promised to make it happen.

Even modest changes to road use are usually difficult and controversial. For all the outcry that followed the sudden appearance of shareable bikes and scooters, it seemed like they at least had the potential to shift public opinion. They could get more people to consider taking more trips without a car, and those users could possibly even ask for road designs that made their journeys safer. It seemed reasonable to expect that flashy startups had a better chance at winning the public’s affection than transportation planners ever would.

It was an appealing gambit for many urbanists: embrace a little chaos from these newcomers if they’ll help demonstrate the need for slower, safer, maybe even car-free streets. The industry’s promises were alluring because they aligned with the ambitious goals spelled out by leaders in major cities around the world to calm the streets, clean the air, and support new ways for people to move around.

What nobody could have seen was how suddenly and dramatically the streets – and what people need from them – would change. Perhaps no transport mode has seen more support from local governments this year than the humble bicycle, with cities including Paris, Montreal, Seattle, Bogota, Mexico City, and Lima rapidly adding new bike lanes and committing to doing much more in the future.

Meanwhile, people have shown a remarkable interest in buying and riding bikes for themselves. Cycle shops around the world have reported shortages this year, especially for cheaper entry-level bicycles. Since the start of the crisis, 1.3 million people in the UK bought bikes, while US bike sales have seen their biggest spike since the 1970s oil crisis, with sales of adult leisure bikes tripling in April compared to the previous year. Similar stories have emerged in Australia and Canada, while Paris has recorded more bike than car traffic on one of its major streets.

Boom times for bikes could certainly be good news for shared mobility companies as well, but first, those companies have to survive the pandemic economy. It’s not even clear they were going to make it before a recession.

Micromobility companies followed Uber’s model for disrupting notions of personal transportation. That included mimicking Uber’s propensity to bleed money and, often, to enter a market without regard for regulators. Investors have allowed Uber to operate at a massive loss for over a decade on the promise of big returns after the company dominates the market it created. That idea was adapted to bike and scooter companies, but investors proved less willing to wait. Even Uber grew impatient, buying Jump Bikes for around $200 million in 2018 only to offload it to Lime this spring alongside an $85 million investment to keep Lime afloat. At the time, Uber’s CEO said it needed to get rid of its micromobility division to “preserve the strength of our balance sheet” because it was losing $60 million a quarter.

The losses should come as no surprise. Speaking to VICE journalist Aaron Gordon, former Jump employees described how the company changed after the Uber acquisition. It went from holding community meetings and working with regulators to dumping bikes in as many new cities as possible, VICE reported, while the bikes’ sturdy locks were replaced with weaker ones that caused theft to soar. As they scaled up quickly, they lost sight of the original mission to make cities better with bicycles.

These were symptoms of a broader problem with the micromobility model. The companies relied on cheaply made vehicles that sometimes lasted only a few weeks, which meant spending frequently on replacements, plus high levels of material waste. They also failed to serve communities equitably, with surveys finding they mainly serve young, well-paid men. That could be because the services are relatively pricey, often more expensive than public transit and sometimes comparable to an Uber or Lyft ride. At those prices, the services could be useful as an occasional convenience, but it wouldn’t take regular users long to save money by buying a bike for themselves.

As the coronavirus crisis hit, the prospects for micromobility companies only went from bad to worse. The companies began laying people off and pulling out of cities, in a continuation of a pre-pandemic trend. Instead of moving their bikes and scooters to new cities or donating them, many simply ended up at the landfill.

If the companies fail, it’s unlikely that cities would mourn them. Many already have their own public bike-share services and a great deal of control over designing and operating them to meet their mobility goals. That includes, crucially, the ability to ensure service to communities that have been ignored or avoided by providers in the private sector.

There’s already evidence that such control has been helpful during the coronavirus emergency. CityMetric’s Alexandra Kanick examined data from six US cities and found that some have fared better by adopting new policies like free passes for essential workers or by adding or expanding docking stations near essential businesses. Many of these systems also saw considerably less decline in ridership compared to their local transit networks.

Several of these bike-share systems have even adapted to compete with the most appealing parts of their startup competitors. Portland, Oregon, and Metro Los Angeles already allow bikes to be locked to standard bike racks rather than docks, and Washington, DC, introduced e-bikes that can be locked to bike racks as well.

The fact is that cities already have options to transform mobility on their own terms. They’re seeing right now that people’s needs and attitudes can change, and that their own bike-share systems can be agile to fill a critical need. What’s more, there are already strong models for encouraging individual bicycle ownership even further: Sweden has had huge success with subsidies to promote e-bike ownership, and now Italy, Madrid, and others are following with subsidies of their own. France, in addition, offers a €50 rebate on bike repairs.

The pandemic has forced cities to rethink streets and public spaces with a new sense of urgency. After many reluctantly accepted a new wave of private companies that promised to deliver a future of active mobility, it’s clearer than ever that that vision can be achieved without them.

Paris Marx is a writer based in St. John's, Canada.


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.