Watch out for

Following on the wheels of car- and bike-sharing systems, electric scooters have invaded European cities. Residents of Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Brussels and Zurich, to name just a few, have fallen for these new two-wheelers. With speeds of up to 25 km/h, the scooters have been installed at strategic points near train stations and metro entrances.

Unlike bikes, the e-scooters are not attached to fixed docks. To use them you just have to download a mobile app, locate available scooters and then scan the vehicle’s QR code before going on your way. Once you’re done, you can leave the e-scooter wherever you want, as long as it doesn’t block traffic. Prices are set at base fee of €1 per ride plus €0.15 per minute. In Paris, the average trip costs between €2 and €3.

The French capital has six scooter operators, the largest of any city. Since last summer these have included the US leaders Bird and Lime. Bird says that 110,000 people, or 5% of the population, have used one of their 2,000 electric scooters. Lime began with a few hundred and plans to eventually deploy thousands.

Just a fad or here to stay?

Despite their initial success, electric-scooter start-ups have raised doubts about their long-term viability. The American business magazine Forbes reported that California-based Bird makes a profit of only 10.5% over the lifetime of each scooter, which is not enough to cover the company’s other operating expenses. “The business model is difficult to sustain over the long run,” concluded the magazine.

Not to mention that, as with bike-sharing schemes, scooters suffer from vandalism and theft. To mitigate these problems, operators are working with partners to pick up scooters in the evening to recharge them and keep them in a safe place.

Marc Antoine Messer, an urban planner from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), believes that the business model is more like Facebook’s: based primarily on collecting data from users. “Operators save masses of data on user trips as well as their travel habits,” he says. “And that information currently holds high intrinsic value.”

Cities in revolt

Presented as a solution to congestion, electric scooters could actually make it worse, says Messer. “They draw mainly pedestrians, not drivers,” he notes. “Plus, without any clear rules of the road, scooters are all over the place – including sidewalks, bike lanes and roads.”

Some cities, including Madrid, have decided to change that. In early December 2018, the Spanish capital refused to grant operating licenses to Lime and two other start-ups, rebuking them for not adequately informing users about the rules of the road. In Barcelona electric-scooter sharing is banned because the city is too crowded.

Despite a few speed bumps, the concept continues to spread. The scooters will soon appear in Lisbon and London, as well as smaller cities like Antwerp.