Try as I might, I just can’t get behind the idea that riding a scooter is suddenly cool. Phoebe Bridgers, an indisputably hip musician, nearly pulled it off when she scooted around Los Angeles in last summer’s video for her song Motion Sickness, but even then the effect was charmingly dorky. No one, not even someone who is actually cool, can scoot without looking like an oversized child.
Still, it is 2018 and we all need to face our prejudices. So I headed into Paris to try out the first “free-floating” electric scooters available for hire in Europe, left out on the streets and controlled with a mobile app.
I have lived in the French capital for three years, mostly navigating it by bike. Now, it is the testing ground for US startups’ grand plans of conquering Europe with a craze that has swept dozens of US cities from Washington DC to San Francisco. To their fans, e-scooters are quick, cheap and moderately green, plus you get to pretend you are a big kid. For some city officials, however, they are a menace; a regulatory headache and a source of potential accidents, with abandoned scooters, and sometimes their drivers, strewn across pavements.
The Paris scheme launched on 21 June and is operated by Lime, one of a handful of Californian scooter startups that have been hurtling along a dizzying trajectory, raising hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital in a matter of months.
The Lime scooters are solid but fairly lightweight, easy to spot thanks to their bright green motors and nippy, with a maximum speed of 15 miles (24km) an hour. You locate the nearest one with the app and turn it on by scanning the QR code on the handlebars. At this point you are charged €1 (£0.88) – $1 in the US – then it is 15 cents for every minute of ride time.
On this morning there are more than 200 scooters scattered around central Paris. Stateside, Lime operates a scheme whereby members of the public can get paid to take them home and charge them. But for now at least, a 40-strong staff in Paris has been picking them up each night, charging them and putting them back on the streets, ready for the morning. The scooters are clustered around the city centre, making them an impractical option for commuters living beyond the tourist zone, including myself, although Lime France says it will be adding more imminently.
I decide to test one near Notre-Dame cathedral and track down four with the app on the Pont Neuf bridge. My chosen steed unlocks smoothly, and I’m off. I initially hoped to take to scooting like a sort of Parisian Marty McFly, zooming into the rush hour with a tug on the throttle and an insouciant shrug. In reality, my debut is ungainly and I jerk along for a couple of metres before coming to an uncertain stop. Still, it is pretty easy to get the hang of: brake with your left hand, push the throttle with your left, allez!
The early adopters of the scooters are mostly young and techy. Kévin Ghanbarzadeh, the French celebrity gamer better known as Shaunz, was among the first European converts after testing Lime’s arch-rival Bird – the fastest startup ever to reach the coveted “unicorn” status of a $1bn (£750m) valuation, and now set to hit double that – on a recent trip to Miami. “I was so surprised to see this scheme arrive in France that I couldn’t wait to try it,” says the 26-year-old. “It doesn’t cost much and you can go pretty fast. I wouldn’t use it that often, but occasionally, yes – to go out with a friend, or to come back after a night out instead of the Métro or an Uber.”
Parisians are quick to slap down my opinion that e-scooters are for losers. “They used to be a bit uncool, but they have been cropping up in Paris for a few years,” says Camille Pailleret, a management consultant trying one out for the first time. “Now, they have really been democratised and are kind of neat.
“The metro and buses are so crowded that I thought it would be interesting to try something that would let me breathe a bit,” she adds, giving it a big thumbs up as she zooms off.
Lime, Bird and other startups – Uber and its rival Lyft are tipped to enter the scooter market – are banking on large numbers of Europeans falling for scooters as Americans have. Local companies are also entering the fray, with Brussels firm Troty launching a dockless service in the Belgian capital on 29 June.
The prospects of taking one for a spin in the UK are slim, though. E-scooters, like hoverboards and Segways, are banned from UK roads and pavements, and the Department for Transport says there are no plans to change the rules. But there will be plenty of places to try them out on the continent. Lime, which has nearly a million users of its scooters and e-bikes in 60 US cities, wants to be in more than 25 European cities by the end of the year.
“We are pretty aggressive in terms of expansion,” says Arthur-Louis Jacquier, director of Lime France. As for Paris, he insists the company is here to stay, despite the scepticism, given the mixed fortunes of Parisian transport ventures of late. Jacquier was previously European vice-president for Gobee.bike, one of several dockless cycle providers that have popped up in Paris since late last year. The Hong Kong-based company quit the French capital, along with several other European cities, within a few months after thousands of its bikes were stolen or vandalised.
Jacquier says the bicycles had faced two main problems – mindless violence and bad parking, which irritated residents – but that Lime has fixes for both. “Because we retrieve our scooters every night to charge them and repair them if needed, we are able to protect our fleet from vandalism. And in the morning we can deploy them in places where it is not annoying for anybody.”
But like the free-floating hire bikes, the scooters are already irritating some Parisians by adding to growing clutter on pavements. “I nearly threw one into the Seine last night,” says Vincent Jarousseau, a documentary photographer. He was furious after crashing into a scooter that had toppled on to a riverside cycle path and suffering a bad fall from his bike.
Paris follows a long list of US cities that have wrestled with how to regulate scooters to minimise accidents. San Francisco has temporarily pulled them from its streets and is set to bring in a tentative cap of 1,250 across a maximum of five companies. For now, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has settled for a code of conduct, signed by Lime along with dockless bike operators. This, notably, gives them just 24 hours to pick up wrecked vehicles that lie abandoned against rubbish bins and trees.
“These operators will not stay long in Paris – and won’t have a profitable business – unless they are accepted by Parisians and have a minimum amount of discipline,” says Hidalgo’s deputy for urban planning, Jean-Louis Missika.
Disciplined or not, some experts are sceptical of the scooters’ chances of survival in the City of Light. “Something that works in San Francisco won’t necessarily work in Paris,” says Nicolas Louvet, director of transport consultancy 6t. “The public transport is completely different – plus it’s a lot easier to walk around Paris.” (The city is extremely compact for a capital.)
Also, the scooters are not particularly cost-effective in Paris. The Métro may be deeply unpleasant when crammed on a midsummer evening, but it only costs €1.50 for a journey of any length. In comparison, a mere 10 minutes on a Lime will set you back €2.50. Plus, given that foldable scooters are light and portable, buying one and carrying it to work is a strong option – particularly since Paris authorities offer 33% subsidies on two-wheel electric vehicles, up to €400.
One aspect in Lime’s favour is that it has arrived in Paris at a particularly chaotic time for its transport network. The once popular Vélib docking bikes are in meltdown following a disastrous rollout of an “upgrade”, which has left their 300,000 users looking for other options. The Autolib electric car-share scheme is shutting down at the end of July, mired in debt. “There is a lot of stuff in the mix and some of it will disappear,” says Louvet.
He describes Parisians as “spoiled children” when it comes to transport, presented with an ever-changing array of options to try and then give up when something new appears – which will, he says, because services such as Lime are operating under a hugely competitive, fast-moving model where “they have to keep reinventing themselves”.
As for me, I can’t say I will be switching from cycling for my daily commute. Taking to the roads on the e-scooter was unnerving in Paris. I didn’t feel stable enough to look over my shoulder to check if anyone was behind me, or let go with one hand to indicate. But I could imagine using one to explore some other European city – ideally one with fewer motorcyclists. After a bit of practice, I might even look cool doing it.
This article provided by NewsEdge.