It’s hard to find a city where e-scooter services have launched without causing some commotion, and Paris is no exception. The shareable rideables first appeared in the French capital in June 2018. By summer 2019, a dozen companies were competing for a share of the market, with a combined fleet of 20,000 scooters. The result has been scooters littering sidewalks and lining the bottom of the River Seine. Crashes were inevitable. In June of this year, a 25-year-old rider was hit by a truck and killed.
As in other swamped cities, these scooters have been operating in a legal gray zone. And like other cities and states, France has moved to change that. In the coming weeks, national regulations will come into effect limiting scooter speeds to 15 mph and mandating that riders stick to bike paths.
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In the meantime, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has worked with the scooter companies on a code of conduct for riders, and is setting up hundreds of dedicated parking spots to end anarchic parking. She also plans to reduce the number of providers down to three for a combined fleet of 15,000, starting in January 2020.
That’s not all bad news for the scooter companies. The free-for-all made survival tough, and six operators voluntarily left the market over the summer. Having too many scooters in service decreased profitability and led to more damages on idle vehicles, Henri Capoul, Bolt’s France country manager, told WIRED in an email. Bolt pulled out in June, and intends to come back by bidding for one of those permits. “What Paris now needs is a clear framework for deploying scooters in a smart way, making sure they fit the public space and transportation services,” he wrote.
While other sharing economy companies like Uber and Airbnb have made a habit of defying regulations, many e-scooter startups are actively working with European municipalities to define new legal frameworks. “The legal limbo doesn’t work in our favor at all. What works is to set clear rules, and that those who want to use them know how to use them,” says Emeline Chicha, Lime’s head of communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
For e-scooters to thrive, Chicha says, they need a combination of existing infrastructure, regulations, and behaviors. Germany has been receptive to e-scooters because of a clear regulatory framework and an openness to alternative modes of transportation. Companies were able to launch smoothly in Tel Aviv, whose dry climate and long, flat bike lanes make a near-perfect setting for scooters. “If there is no awareness of micromobility, and the city has been built only for cars, it cannot work,” Chicha says.
Hidalgo is a progressive mayor with a bright green streak. She has pedestrianized Paris’ riverside expressways and launched an ambitious plan to develop the city’s biking infrastructure. But like the leaders of most metropolises, her administration failed to anticipate the rise of micromobility—not just e-scooters but also electric bicycles, electric skates, hoverboards, and the like—and the many new startups that are banking on their shared use. In an interview with Le Monde last year, Hidalgo said her team should have seen dockless bike sharing coming, before they finished upgrading Vélib’, the city’s massive bike-share system. The new fleet includes electric bikes, but users still have to pick up and return their rides at the docks around town.
E-scooters, too, were a surprise. “The city was a little overwhelmed because it didn’t want to appear anti-innovation or anti-novelty,” says Jean-Sébastien Catier, who heads Paris en Selle, a citizen association that campaigns for increased biking infrastructure in Paris. “By the time they reacted, it was a little too late.”
Now, with little data on e-scooter usage and few examples from other cities as to what role micromobility could play in the overall urban transportation landscape, Paris must regulate e-scooter usage and invest in new infrastructure to make its citizens safe.
The French capital is likely to be a crucial market for shared e-scooter operators to capture. Its high density translates into higher scooter usage, increasing cost-effectiveness. Around the Louvre museum in Paris’ first arrondissement, Lime scooters stay idle for less than one minute per day, Lime’s Chicha said. If Lime and its competitors can figure out their economics—most likely in cities with the right sort of weather, topography, and density—they’ll have plenty of happy customers. But for cities like Paris, that brings up another question: Are scooters good for urban mobility as a whole?
The early data we have isn’t entirely promising. In a survey on shared e-scooter use in Paris, 30 percent of “local” users (residents, as opposed to visitors) said they would have made their last trip using public transportation had shared e-scooter services not existed. Studies show that ride-hailing apps have contributed to a drop in transit ridership in some American cities. Scooters could do the same. And despite claims that shared e-scooters can offer an alternative to driving (“the final objective is to take people out of the cars,” says Lime’s Emeline Chicha), the Paris survey showed that almost half of shared e-scooter rides by locals replaced walking. Just 8 percent replaced trips made by car.
Signs also point to a consolidation of the shared mobility market through partnerships or acquisitions, with e-scooters being part of a broader service offering that gives user flexibility and convenience, and reinforces the company’s value proposition. This is likely why Uber acquired Jump and Lyft bought Motivate. Such consolidation could fuel private transportation. Public transit authorities need a sustained revenue from ridership in order to maintain infrastructure and keep servicing low-income people. With quality of service declining, more people would hit the roads and congestion would increase. In that scenario, no one benefits.
On the other hand, startups could benefit from integrating public transit into their offering, which seems to be what Uber was after when it partnered with Denver’s Regional Transportation District for a pilot project, and Lyft and Uber moved to integrate public transit information into their apps. In Paris, they will soon be competing with a new multimodal app to be launched in 2020 by Île-de-France, the administrative region Paris belongs to.
Mobility as a service will be good for users, but unless Paris finds a way to lure them back into public transit, or at least divert some revenue from shared private transportation back into public infrastructure—last year Bird announced it would help build and maintain protected bike lanes in cities where it operates—e-scooter companies will not contribute to a long-term vision for sustainable mobility.
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