By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO, Autonomy
Late Autumn saw Paris flooded with free-floating scooters. Should they stay or go? Before I answer that let me clear up the confusion around the word ‘scooter’.
To Europeans a scooter is a small urban motorbike, like a Vespa. Americans call that a moped or Vespa and reserve the word scooter for what, until recently, was a child’s toy that you stand on and propel with your foot. The French call this a Trotinette. Hence the confusion when Bird recently arrived on the streets of Paris with their ‘scooter sharing’ solution; notwithstanding that Cityscoot and Coup have been using the term ‘scooter sharing’ for a while. Bird used the term ‘scooter’ in the American sense, while the others in the French sense.
In this article I use ‘scooter’ for the sitting moped/Vespa-type vehicles used by Coup and CityScoot and ‘e-trott’ for an electric stand scooter. ‘Trott’, an abbreviation of trottinette, is pronounced’ ‘trot’ in English. Interestingly, these vehicles operate at around the speed of a trotting horse – 12 to 18 km/h.
I recently gave a speech at a top international law firm in Paris. After the presentation I chatted to a lawyer assisting Uber in getting their London operating license back from TFL. The conversation moved from Uber to the arrival of Bird, Bolt and Lime in Paris. He predicted that free-floating e-trotts would be banned in cities within the next year. His reasoning was simple – pedestrians or commuters injured in accidents would litigate against the city and not the operator, resulting in cities banning the vehicles from their streets.
A few nights later I was having dinner with someone from the mayor’s office who wanted e-trotts banned as she did not like the way they interfered with her commute by bicycle in the narrow cycling lanes.
I interviewed the founder of Taxify, Markus Villig, at Autonomy &The Urban Mobility Summit this past October. He said autonomous vehicles in cities are a lot further away than we think, but that e-trotts can radically solve urban pollution and congestion problems as they are so effective over short distances, which represent the vast majority of city car trips. However, he noted that for a city like Paris to become the car-free metropolis some envision, it would need 50 times as many e-trotts as we see today.
Unlike sit scooters, e-trotts are such a new invention that there is no urban legislation that governs their use. Should the rider be compelled to use a helmet? Should they be allowed on sidewalks? What about bike lanes? Or what about letting them weave between cars on the the road? Can we justify building new infrastructure for these handy devices?
Although I’m a keen hobby cyclist, I would hate to see e-trotts outlawed. Autonomy promotes mobility solutions that reduce pollution, congestion and carbon emissions. Small and light electric devices, like e-trotts, fit the bill nicely. I’m deeply concerned about air pollution that my young children are exposed to in Paris, not to mention the accumulative effects of such pollution: global warming. E-trotts are part of the solution.
I set aside time earlier this week to speak to the leading operators in Europe to understand what it would take to radically increase the number of e-trotts in Paris.
Henri Capoul is the country manager for Taxify France. He embodies the energy and optimism of Taxify – Europe’s second major mobility Unicorn after BlaBlaCar. Taxify is the first ride-hailing company to offer a choice of chauffeured car or e-trott on the same app. Uber will follow suit next spring when they launch their e-bike and e-trott brand Jump in Paris. Henri believes that there is sufficient demand in Paris to increase free-floating e-trotts from 5 000 to 100 000.
The main obstacle to such ambition is parking infrastructure. Currently 110 000 petrol scooters, plus 5 000 shared e-scooters of Coup and CityScoot, fight it out for 50 0000 parking bays. Velib has 1 000 dedicated stations for their 14 000 shared bikes and then there are about 600 000 vehicles that drive in and around the city each day and share 150 000 street parking bays. To accommodate 100 000 scooters you would need the equivalent of at least 10 000 car bays, strategically located throughout the city to keep the the free-floating flexibility that is integral to the business model.
Bird were the first shared e-trotts to arrive in Paris. Country manager Kenneth Schlenker is a Franco-American who has worked in NYC and has good things to say about this city. He told me that, “Paris is the most forward-thinking city in the world when it comes to free-floating transportation”. Unlike London, where e-trott operators are banned until further notice, the city of Paris has been most open-minded and accommodating, notwithstanding that Mayor Anne Hildago and Dep mayor Christophe Najdovski are keen cyclists. (Najdovski arrived at Autonomy 2018 by Vélib’ which is a 5.5 km ride from his office in the city hall).
Despite this general acceptance of free floating solutions in a city like Paris, one of the largest problems scooter operators face remains winning over policymakers. Some have suffered reputational damage from “deploy first and ask questions later”. Another obstacle is from policymakers who have invested heavily in bike infrastructure and are themselves cyclists. They believe e-trotts could undermine the more virtuous modes of walking and cycling, which keeps their citizens healthy. While these arguments might be valid, the major obstacle to people exercising on the streets is the high levels of pollution, as discovered by Nike in their study on urban mobility trends.
Finally, I spoke with Arthur-Louis Jacquier of Lime. Before joining Lime to run their French operations, Arthur-Louis was responsible for GoBee Bike in Paris and pointed out that the economics of bike share don’t stack up like they do for free floating e-trotts.
Operators are reluctant to divulge the price of their e-trotts, but I estimate they get them from Chinese manufacturers for around 400 euros. If a vehicle is rented ten times a day at an average of three euros per ride, then the cost can be recouped in a couple of weeks. Compare that with scooter-sharing platforms that charge twice that, but whose vehicles are ten times the cost; or car-sharing operators that charge four times the price for a vehicle that is eighty times the cost of an e-trott. Clearly e-trott sharing is a great business and I am not surprised that new entrants like Tier raised $25 million and Voi raised $50 million in the last few months. But if they are to have a future on our streets, they will need to do a better job than many of their predecessors at self-regulating and winning over policymakers.
Lime recently invested $3 million in their Respect the Ride campaign. They generously offered a Closca helmet, valued at 100 euros, in exchange for riders signing a code of good conduct, where they endeavour to respect the rules of the road. All operators I spoke to were eager to self-regulate and work within the rules when they enter a city. As it is such a new industry, they have not had time to collaborate amongst themselves on codes of conduct. They also do not seem to have accumulated travel data to tell a positive, fact-based story of how they are improving cities.
My hope is that these young startups can move fast enough to win the press, public and policymakers over before they are deemed a nuisance and banned from the streets.
Having trouble keeping all the new actors in the e-trott ecosystem straight? Take a look at this handy table which gives you an overview of all the e-trott players on the market now: An Overview Table of the Shared Electric Scooter (e-trott) Ecosystem