Are scooters a fade or the future of urban mobility?

After a successful launch in several American cities, scooters are now invading the streets of Europe. They are rapidly becoming part of the urban landscape, and the developers of scooter-sharing solutions want to believe they will, eventually, replace the bike.

It all started just a few months ago, when two competing bike-sharing companies (who were each barely a year old) launched their free-loading solution for electric scooters. LimeBike first deployed its lime-coloured e-scooters in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Washington D.C. — and, as of June 22nd, in Paris, the first of many in Europe. “Paris is our first big-scale deployment in Europe, we have big ambitions in Europe,” Lime France director Arthur-Louis Jacquier told Reuter. In fact, the company plans to launch in no less than 26 European cities by the end of 2018. Its main opponent is Bird, another bike-sharing start-up that recently added e-scooters to the mix: it launched in the exact same cities as Lime, plus Austin, and plans to expand to 50 U.S. markets by the end of 2018. As reports TechCrunch, according to a recent job posting, Bird also has its eyes on the European market.

Now, everybody wants in on the opportunity: Spin, another bike-sharing company, has recently expanded to e-scooters, and newcomer Skip is already roaming the streets of Washington D.C.. In France, Strasbourg-based start-up Knot is developing both docked and free-floating solutions for scooters with no electric assistance: in the summer of 2017, they started testing their services in a few cities neighbouring Paris, and are working to soon launch in Germany and the United States. So far, 2018 is proving that, once the epitome of uncool, scooters are now generating unprecedented enthusiasm.

The ultimate solution for the last-mile problem

So why all the frenzy? On paper, scooters look like the easiest of solutions for clean mobility. When they’re electric, they make it easier for everyone to choose a softer means of transportation: it is a breeze to go uphill and the e-scooter gets you anywhere, fast. “They’re a really great option if you are trying to flexibly and quickly get somewhere that’s five or six blocks away,” explains to Condé Nast Traveler Caen Contee, head of marketing at LimeBike. “We see ourselves taking on the last-mile problem.” For Travis VanderZanden, former Uber and Lyft executive and founder of Bird, the goal is in fact not to replace bikes, but cars: “Our long-term goal is to get people out of cars, reduce traffic, and cut carbon emissions. We hope to replace as many as possible of the 40 percent of car trips in the U.S. that are less than two miles,” he says in the same article. On the other hand, manual scooters have the advantage of being allowed to ride on the sidewalk, as explains Knot co-founder Polina Mikhaylova to Business Insider France, which is a winning point for people who would be afraid to ride a bike or an electric scooter among traffic. Scooters are light and they don’t take much parking space (a problem residents are frequently complaining about with free-loading bikes) ; they don’t require specific infrastructures and are arguably easier to maintain than bikes.

Move over, bike-sharing

As a matter of fact, scooters look like they could be a credible alternative to bike-sharing solutions, which are increasingly failing and have trouble reinventing themselves. A dozen years ago, the bike stations that flourished everywhere in Europe were a revolution that durably contributed to making bicycles part of urban mobility again. Today, the Vélib in Paris has proven to be a complete disaster, due mostly to vandalism and the impossible maintenance costs of keeping the float in shape. Free-floating bike solutions were no more successful: in early 2018, Hong-Kong based start-up Gobee Bike announced it was leaving the European market after only a few months of activity. At times, up to 90% of its float in Lille, France, needed repairing, and the company also had to face an unexpected number of thefts and unauthorised privatisations. Some, like Les Échos, also highlighted the fact that no docks means it takes much more time to identify and retrieve the broken bikes. Scooter providers apparently believe they will not have these sorts of problems, or at least that they will be more manageable. In Paris, Lime says it retrieves all of its scooters every night between 9pm and 6am to recharge and repair them if needed.

Who gets to shape the future of urban mobility?

But so far, it hasn’t been smooth sailing either: in the United States, residents are starting to rebel. “The scooters are a hazard zipping past pedestrians. They’re always blocking sidewalks and ramps, getting vandalized and thrown in the park (and the canal, and the creek)”, writes Wamu, the American University magazine, which is based in D.C.. San Francisco’s lawyer, Dennis Herrera, sent a “cease and desist” letter to Spin in April 2018 after receiving many complaints about the e-scooters. The city of Santa Monica sued Bird after a series of accidents, including a couple that resulted in a severe head injury and a broken arm, respectively.

However, the main concern posed by the boom of scooter-sharing services may be elsewhere. After testing the Lime scooter, Télérama underlines that having to use bike lanes “might reduce even more the very little space dedicated to bikes in the capital”, and gets the feeling that the start-up “innovates for an enthusiastic minority” and “often forgets the silent majority.” As writes the Dallas Magazine, “some anxiety over unregulated tech startups having such a deciding role in the future of transportation is justified.” It mentions a few studies that suggest that Uber and Lyft, instead of ushering a transport revolution, have made city traffic worse, since people tend to choose ridesharing over walking, cycling, or public transit. “The public, not LimeBike, should dictate transportation policy,” it concludes. Not LimeBike, nor any other private initiative. Time will tell if European cities take on the task of developing efficient and sustainable scooter-sharing services — hopefully with more success than the bike.