Isabelle Vanbrabant was walking home through a park one spring evening in Paris when an electric scooter crashed into her, breaking the pianist’s wrist in two places. Beronique Kilebasa was crossing a street with her seven-week-old baby strapped to her chest when a man riding a similar scooter collided into her, knocking them both to the ground. In another incident, a scooter sped through a red light and straight into an 81-year-old man, killing him.
All three accidents happened within weeks of each other, resulting from the thousands of electric scooters – or “trottinettes” as they are known locally – that have filled the streets of the French capital over the last year. For Vanbrabant, the accident has come at the cost of her career as a pianist at the famed Paris Opera.
“The pavement is no longer a safe place for pedestrians,” she says. “The evening I went to hospital for my injury, there were 10 other accidents in the emergency room caused by these scooters – five injured riders and five injured pedestrians.”
San Francisco-based startup Lime was the first to begin rolling out electric scooters in Paris in June 2018. Being cheap, relatively green, and needing only a smartphone and a credit card to use, Parisians and tourists were quick to adopt them. But since they were first introduced, more than 20,000 of the two-wheeled machines have now taken up residence on the city’s pavements, streets and boulevards.
While Lime is still the largest operator, it now shares the market with 11 separate competitors – more than any other city around the world – and the huge influx has riled some residents. Jérôme Courmet, the mayor of Paris’s 13th arrondissement, called for “enough of this bullshit” in a sternly worded video recently posted to Twitter.
“Scooter operators, look at me in the eye,” the video begins. “Electric scooters being poorly parked on the pavement is over.” In the background, a task force set up by Courmet is seen loading the scooters onto the back of a truck to be taken away.
At the Lime offices in Paris, they are well aware of the carnage their two-wheeled machines are causing on the streets outside. When asked about Parisians being fed up with the way people are using their scooters, Lime’s head of international communications Paloma Castro throws up her hands and says “so are we”.
By way of expressing this, the startup launched an unconventional ad campaign across the city in June. Slogans currently adorning bus stops and metro billboards include “Crap scooters”, “I’m sick of these scooters”, and “These scooters are a real pain in the arse”.
(Each slogan comes with an asterisk and accompanying small print: “Not applicable to scooters respecting pedestrians/not riding on pavements/parked correctly.”)
“This poster campaign is an opportunity for us to show that we understand and share Parisian’s concerns,” says Arthur-Louis Jacquier, Lime’s general manager in France. “We want to change the behaviour by challenging both the users and detractors of our service.”
Ms Castro describes big cities like Paris as an intimidating “jungle” for their inhabitants. “People become hostile towards cities and don’t respect them,” she says. “This is a question of civility and how we behave. It’s not just about the scooters, it’s a conversation we need to have as a society.”
Lime is already in talks with city authorities about the issues but now hopes to open up the conversation to include the citizens of Paris. To begin this, the company has announced 12 measures for “sustainable and responsible riding”, which include lessons on how to ride an e-scooter and distributing free helmets to its users.
The way electric scooters and their operators have been able to overwhelm Paris is in part due to relaxed French laws that allow this new form of transport to thrive. In London, for example, electric scooters are illegal on the roads unless they are registered and taxed, while also forbidden on the pavement due to the 1835 Highway Act, which prohibits anyone from riding a “carriage of any description” on a footpath.
No such quirky laws exist in France, and less than a year after launching in Paris, more than one in 10 Parisians are already using the dockless scooters. A further one in three say they would consider using them, according to a recent survey by Odoxa.
Using one, it is easy to see why they have become so popular. Cheap, ubiquitous, and easier to ride than a bicycle, electric scooters manage to be both fun, while also fulfilling the final hurdle of urban transportation, known as the “last mile”.
Paris already pioneered ways to bridge this distance between a person’s home or place of work and transport hubs like bus stops and metro stations. In 2007 the city launched the Velib’ bikeshare scheme – the first capital city in the world to introduce this type of infrastructure.
Despite the success of Velib’, electric scooters manage to meet a need that the fixed docking stations of the bicycles prevent. The dockless nature of scooters like Lime’s mean people can ride them right to their front door, should they wish. But this presents another problem: Clutter
Less moving parts mean they are also easier to maintain and repair than bikes, while also being as environmentally friendly. In the home of the Paris Agreement, it seems the gas-guzzling, carbon-coughing cars face more of an existential threat on the streets of Paris.
“They are a revolution of urban mobility,” Castro says. “It’s pretty obvious they’re here to stay.”
Research published in May by Boston Consulting Group suggests Castro might be right. The research group estimates that the global market for shared e-scooter rides will be between $40bn and $50bn by 2025.
“Despite their drawbacks, they have the potential to fill an important role in urban mobility at a time when solutions to congestion and pollution are urgently needed,” BCG’s report stated, adding that cities that embrace them have a lot to gain, “not least by making city centres more fun”.
The uncontrollable success of the scooters in Paris may be good business for the startups taking advantage of this opportunity, but in a city that has voted for a socialist mayor since 2001, the scooter scourge is seen by some as a symbol of unbridled capitalism.
People have gone as far as to take their frustrations out on the machines themselves. Walking around the streets of the city, it doesn’t take long to spot one that’s been vandalised. Countless others have been been thrown into rivers and canals.
Pacifying the streets is proving a key political challenge for Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, who will need to find a way to integrate the scooters into the city’s existing infrastructure if she is to stand any chance of re-election next year.
“We need order and rules to assure road safety and to calm the streets, sidewalks and neighbourhoods of our city,” Hidalgo said last week. “It’s not far from anarchy and it’s extremely difficult for a city like ours to manage this kind of service.”
Hidalgo plans to introduce designated parking spaces for the scooters, while also limiting the speed to just 20kmh on most roads and 8kmh in busy areas. There could also soon be a cap on the number of operators and scooters allowed in the city, with a maximum of three operators seen as a more manageable number.
Until then, there appears to be no end to the number of accidents reported each day.
Jean-Rene Albertin, the partner of Van Brabant, has set up an association alongside Arnaud Kielbasa, whose wife Beronique and baby were hit by a rogue scooter. Together they are hoping to bring to an end what they describe as “anarchy in the streets” through their association APACAUVI (Philanthropic association against urban anarchy).
“It is out of control, and the police seem to be doing nothing to stop people from riding these scooters wherever and however they want,” Albertin says. “We need to take action if we are to prevent more terrible accidents like this taking place.
“It is a difficult fight because ultimately it is a fight against stupidity. I’m not sure you can even win a fight against stupidity but at least we can help the victims.”
As for Vanbrabant, doctors say it may take up to a year before her wrist is healed, though it is not certain if she will ever enjoy the same movement she did before. But it’s the people riding them irresponsibly rather than the scooters themselves that she’s against.
“They look fun, they seem easy to ride but they’re deceptively dangerous,” she says.
When asked if she would ever ride one herself, she gestures to her wrist. “Even if I wanted to now, I couldn’t.”
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