ATLANTA—Micromobility is defined as the sharing of transportation technologies like pedal and electric bicycles, electric scooters and skateboards for short trips in urban settings. It is such a new field that its name didn’t exist until it was coined for a summit in 2017. Policies regarding micromobility are also emerging, and as such, are ripe for study.
In 2018, sociologist Deirdre Oakley in the College of Arts & Sciences seized the opportunity to propose micromobility as a research topic for the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program. She asked urban policy postdoc Chris Wyczalkowski to help her develop an NSF grant proposal with other Georgia State faculty and metro Atlanta universities. The two, who are both affiliated with the Urban Studies Institute (USI), also began discussing the possibility of creating a micromobility lab at Georgia State University.
“There’s no research on micromobility – no data, no literature, nothing,” said Wyczalkowski, a research associate with the USI in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “We’re early in the game. So Deirdre and I came up with the idea of housing a micromobility lab in the USI. With the lab as an umbrella, we could work in an interdisciplinary way, bringing in lots of perspectives and cross-fertilizing ideas to enhance both our research and degree programs.”
To this end, they developed an interdisciplinary directed study in which graduate students would examine the relationship between last-mile micromobility via electric scooters and MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit service.
“Our objective was to give the students experience in primary data collection and analysis. They would do an online survey of the Georgia State community and in-person surveys of MARTA riders,” said Wyczalkowski. Until COVID-19 safety measures closed the campus, “we were planning to do in-person focus groups, too.”
Urban studies students Kenneth Gilkes (M.I.S.), Casey Ndubuisi (M.I.S.) and Margaret Mullins (M.I.S.), and Matt Sanchez (Ph.D. in Criminal Justice & Criminology) enrolled in the studio for spring 2020. They began developing the survey instrument and planning the focus groups.
“I know people in my generation that don’t even have a driver’s license. They don’t have a need to drive. They walk, take Uber or Lyft,” said Gilkes. “So I’ve been trying to learn more about Complete Streets and sustainable transportation. For this project, we developed several worthwhile questions related to income equity and micromobility.”
Sanchez, through his criminal justice lens, looked at the class as a way to study micromobility and moral panic: “We thought this was a concept we could apply. So, I’m interested in knowing how people view the scooters relative to their risk, the regulations that were quickly passed because of the panic that rose up quickly after they came to Atlanta, and the enforcement of those regulations.”
On March 16, Georgia State’s campus closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. MARTA ridership dropped precipitously. There would be no in-person surveys or focus groups.
“Before the closedown, the idea was that the students would moderate the focus groups and present their findings at the Atlanta Studies Symposium,” said Oakley, “but that was cancelled.”
Just before then, Georgia State had awarded Oakley and Wyczalkowski a $7,500 internal seed grant for their work in micromobility. They used it to contract with an efocus group technology platform that allowed the students to move their research online.
“We had to change everything,” said Oakley.
The students emailed the survey to 50,000-plus Georgia State students. It generated nearly 1,800 responses. During the online focus groups, they took turns moderating and notating the discussions. All were pleased with what they learned about conducting the focus groups online.
“Being online didn’t hinder anyone from being honest or saying what they wanted to say,” said Ndubuisi. “It was also easier to structure. In a public group, you don’t want people talking over each other. They must feel all opinions are important. That was easier to do online.”
“We all got used to it,” admitted Mullins. “We learned how to read people and have meaningful conversations in this online environment.”
The research also answered some important questions about e-scooters as a last-mile solution.
“There are various regulations many people aren’t aware of when it comes to e-scooters – details around speed issues, street conditions and costs,” said Gilkes. “Since we were mid-stream in the course, the COVID-19 pandemic gave us an opportunity to ask more and different questions about micromobility, health and safety.”
Oakley believes there is much more this line of research will reveal.
“There are so many topics to explore with micromobility. Does it cut down on congestion? What are the equity issues, injury issues? If it takes off, it would be nice to develop boutique courses that delve into these and other related issues, and to bring these questions into a lab that would foster not only interdisciplinary work, but also service learning for our students.”
From the students’ perspectives, too, the mid-stream pivot from in-person to online research will bear important findings.
“In general, we’re all really excited to see the study results and where it takes us,” said Sanchez. “And, we’ll have some good papers come out of it.”
Dr. Oakley was just appointed Editor In Chief of City & Community, the flagship journal of urban sociology. City & Community is the journal of the Community and Urban Sociology Section (CUSS) of the American Sociological Association (ASA). She is currently working on a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project: “Interrupting Place-based Inequality: Building Sustainable Communities through Shared Equity Homeownership” with Dr. Erin Ruel here in Sociology; as well as Drs Susan Saegert and Mary Clare Lennon at CUNY Graduate Center. More broadly, her research and teaching focuses on how intersections of urban social disadvantages concerning education, immigration, housing, neighborhood change, policing and race/ethnicity are often compounded by geographic space and urban policies. Dr. Oakley has provided Congressional Testimony concerning public housing preservation and the Neighborhood Choice Initiative to the Financial Services Committee. She received her B.A. in American History from Bowdoin College.
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Urban Studies Institute
Dr. Wyczalkowski is a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Urban Studies Institute and Disaster SMART Schools at Georgia State University. Chris is an urban policy scholar with research interests related to the interaction of society with the evolving urban environment. His current research agenda is focused on the effects of transportation systems on neighborhood change, and disaster recovery.