"Surely creating eco-friendly technology is no good if you damage the environment as you do it?" A question on Dr. Leslie Dewan’s mind as she explores the country that holds the answer.
Video by National Geographic

A journey of many parts

How we get from A to B (never mind C and D) has a huge impact on climate change. Even something as simple as popping to the shops is contributing to the millions of tonnes of CO2 and other pollutants that are heating up our planet and impacting our air quality at an alarming rate. If we can find a way to make transportation green, it could put us in the fast lane to solving many of the environmental issues that are currently plaguing our world.

While electric vehicles have long been touted as a cleaner, ‘greener’ transport solution, experts are now looking beyond just electrifying cars and public transport, towards smaller, individual “micro EV’s”. According to Robin Chase – founder and former CEO of car-sharing firm, Zipcar, “2019 will see an explosion in shared electric bikes (e-bikes) and small electric ‘push’ scooters (e-scooters).” Adopting new modes of transport on this micro level is key if we’re to make the entirety of our journeys electric and – by extension – solve our wider environmental challenges.

Those-in-the-know talk about the ‘First’- and ‘Last Mile’ – a term previously coined by the telecommunications sector – to describe the short stretches of travel we take at the beginning and end of most journeys. When going abroad for example, our flight itself is often just the ‘middle bit’ – bookended by a taxi to the airport then a transfer to the hotel once we land; even something as seemingly innocuous as getting a train usually includes a car or bus ride at some point. However short these trips may be in length, each is playing its part in adding to the problem. Thankfully, though, there’s plenty of scope to make these ‘First’ and ‘Last’ Miles more efficient and eco-friendly, thanks to advances in small, electric personalized vehicles – something that’s already taking off in Belgium.

Powered pedalling

The most notable form of transport to receive a boost is the humble bicycle. In a country that’s famed for its cycling heritage, electric-powered bikes have now become the largest bike category in the country, with a market share of 45 percent according to annual Belgian bicycle show, Velofollies – overtaking petrol-powered mopeds as the preferred mode of transport for anyone needing to nip about town.

This growth hasn’t come about by accident. It’s been stimulated by government incentives – including tax cuts from 21 to 6 percent, which have encouraged e-bike use – along with clear and concise regulations surrounding their use. For example, e-Bikes with a top speed of 15.53 mph (25km/h) don’t require any specific insurance, while faster e-Bikes – so-called speed pedelecs, which can reach up to 27.96 mph (45km/h) – come under similar laws to those of mopeds: namely, riders must wear a helmet, be over 16 years-old, register their vehicle and get specific insurance.

While no one likes the extra paperwork, these measures have made Belgium’s streets safer places for drivers, riders and pedestrians alike – and the bureaucracy seemingly isn’t putting people off. “Our clients tend to go for the higher class of e-bicycles,” declares one Brussels bicycle dealer. “The major argument is the speed. With a faster bike, cyclists are in phase with the traffic flow.”

e-Bikes have also facilitated an important paradigm shift towards ‘as-a-service’ transport – something we’ll be seeing much more of across the whole future mobility mix. For example Uber’s Jump and its competitor, Villo, offer tourists and commuters the chance to hire over 1,000 e-Bikes for their city cycle trips. In just a few clicks you can download the app and locate your nearest available e-bicycle. From there you can avoid the notorious Belgian traffic snarl-ups.

Easy does it with an e-scooter

If all that pedalling (even the assisted kind) sounds a bit too much like hard work, Brussels also boasts five e-scooter hire companies. These offer the city’s commuters 5,000 vehicles to use on demand; simply hop on, glide across town and hop off at your destination – all without breaking a sweat.

Currently hire companies only have to apply for a permit to operate but, due to the increase in demand, new rules have recently been put in place: suppliers must now provide at least 50 e-scooters, powered by green energy (and not a fossil-fuel-powered motor). There’s even there’s talk of restricting the number of scooters in particularly busy areas, and prohibiting e-scooter parking in certain zones of the city in order to prevent unruly 'dump-and-run' behavior by commuters.

Despite these likely future restrictions, Uber is set to complement its thriving e-Bike business by financing the launch of Lime and its 500 e-scooters in the city. To use it you simply search for nearby scooters via an app, and scan a QR-code on the vehicle to unlock it. Less than a minute later you’re on your way...

Tiny transportation

While e-scooters and e-Bikes are now reducing our reliance on car – and changing our commuting habits – nevertheless they are simply electrifying two modes of already well-established transportation. So what about something a little more innovative? Enter the electric unicycle, which is becoming increasingly common on our city streets.

There are no circus tricks here just a self-balancing single wheel with a gyroscopic motor, which you control by leaning forwards or backwards to determine your speed. With an estimated 50,000 unicycle users worldwide, this is still very niche but it’s growing; the most popular model, the InMotion V8, sold an impressive 12,000 in 2017 – a figure that’s set to increase, with new models like the bigger and more powerful ‘V10’ coming on stream.

This futuristic personal mobility device benefits from being completely portable – you can take it to work and store in a drawer, or carry it about on public transport – and is rechargeable from a normal power socket. Be warned, however: if balance is not your strong suit, then you may struggle slightly – and your street cred’ may take a bit of a hammering en route…

If your comfort zone is more suited to two wheels, then why not try the ‘hoverboard’ instead? Although it shares a name with Marty McFly’s Back To The Future 2 device, this version doesn’t actually hover off the ground; rather it has a wheel either side and accelerates by the rider leaning forward or backwards. A knack that’s easier than it sounds. Nonetheless, hoverboards are proving much more popular than unicycles, with the Global Hoverboard Market expecting them to increase by 4.26 percent globally by 2021. Small, albeit tangible steps towards electrifying our A to B.

So what’s the key to mass-adoption of ‘micro EV’s? In short, proactive government policy – something that Brussels has been quick to get behind. As part of the country’s ‘mobility budget’ – aimed at incentivising people to commute in environmentally conscious ways – September 2019 will see the Belgian government permit all employees to use their eco-vouchers to buy electric-powered scooters, unicycles and hoverboards. Watch this space for a further boost in demand and use of these innovative EV’s.

As we cast our eye to the future and the fundamental changes we need to make, it’s vital we look at our individual journeys as being made up of many parts – using many forms of electric transport. Key to making this paradigm shift work is to ensure the process of switching transport modes becomes completely seamless – something Audi is currently looking at with its plan for an e-tron scooter that fits in the car boot – plus a multi-device navigation system that allows you to plan door-to-door journeys using both car and scooter. While there’s still a long way to go in solving our current problems, examples like show how different transport modes can tangibly become part of the same journey. Exciting things are happening…

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