- In early April, a small minority of Parisians banned rental e-scooters in a referendum.
- The move comes in stark contrast to other major cities that are renewing and expanding e-scooters.
- Transportation experts say the Paris ban doesn’t necessarily mean much for the growth of micromobility.
The residents of Paris, France, on Sunday voted to get rid of the 15,000 electric rental scooters on its streets.
It’s the latest hiccup in what was once touted as a central pillar of the movement to decarbonize urban transportation.
Meanwhile, other major cities, including Washington, DC, Chicago, New York, Rome, and Madrid, have renewed or expanded their e-scooter programs recently.
The diverging approaches to rental e-scooters by major cities around the world reflects the technology’s chaotic rollout over the last few years and an inability for cities to keep up with sufficient regulations, experts say. It’s also illustrative of how the path to greener transportation won’t look the same everywhere.
That’s because so-called micromobility presents a mixed bag of safety and environmental benefits. They can be dangerous for riders, pedestrians, and others on the street; they’re not necessarily as environmentally friendly as mass transit and other micromobility; they can hurt mass transit by cutting into ridership; and the dockless vehicles often litter the streets, blocking sidewalks and roads.
But they also replace a significant portion of car trips, cutting carbon emissions while meeting the needs of people who want to travel short distances for relatively low cost. And they’re far safer than cars, trucks, and other motor-vehicles.
Either way, experts say the regulatory environment in Paris and many other places just hasn’t been able to keep up.
“It just happened too fast and so we don’t know what to do with them,” Sam Schwartz, the former top engineer for the New York City Department of Transportation, told Insider. “What we’ve seen is a change in how people travel that would normally take 10 to 15 years compressed into two to three years.”
‘Chaos in the streets’
The French capital is one of the most pedestrian-friendly and bike-able cities in the world and has made major strides toward its urbanist goals in recent years, in large part thanks to its socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo.
The mayor welcomed e-scooters in 2018, but has since soured on them, calling them a “source of tension and worry” for Parisians concerned about safety and traffic chaos. She called the referendum and says she’ll enforce the non-binding vote.
Since e-scooters were introduced in Paris in 2018, they’ve become a key piece of the city’s robust transportation system. Last year, two million people in Paris took about 20 million trips on e-scooters.
The city was initially flooded with operators and a backlash soon formed against the e-scooters parked in the middle of sidewalks and the riders weaving in between pedestrians. Paris authorities cracked down somewhat, reducing the number of companies able to operate scooters.
E-scooters lie on top of each other in Berlin’s government district. E-scooters have been approved for road use in Germany since mid-2019 and are now offered as rental vehicles by various providers, especially in city centers.
Bernd von Jutrczenka/Getty Images
“They had a couple of years of kind of chaos on the streets where scooters were left everywhere and people felt like they were a real nuisance,” said Aimee Gauthier, the chief knowledge officer at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. “It’s really hard to come back from that.”
Over the last five years, vocal Parisians have expressed concerns about the safety of e-scooters in the bustling metropolis. Last year, three people were killed and over 400injured in scooter accidents in the city.
“Scooters have become my biggest enemy. I’m scared of them,” Suzon Lambert, a 50-year-old Parisian teacher, told AFP last week. “Paris has become a sort of anarchy. There’s no space any more for pedestrians.”
But Paris’ referendum — which only 7.5% of eligible voters weighed in on — doesn’t necessarily reflect how e-scooters are faring elsewhere.
Washington, DC, is taking a very different approach. Late last year, DC announced it would increase permits for rental e-scooters by up to 40%. The US capital has seen a strong uptick in e-scooter use in recent years, spurred in part by pandemic-induced desires for open-air, individual transport.
E-scooters from three different suppliers are parked in a designated parking space in Paris, France.
Michael Evers/Getty Images
Companies are holding out hope they can compromise with cities
Russell Murphy, a spokesperson for the San Francisco-based company Lime, which operates e-bikes and e-scooters in both Paris and DC, said it’s made significant alterations to its product and policies to address rider and city needs. They’ve implemented automatic speed reductions, and developed software that detects sidewalk riding and multiple riders, among other things.
Transportation experts say Paris’ ban isn’t necessarily reflective of how the public in that city — or any — feels about e-scooters. Only about 7.5% of eligible voters in Paris cast their ballots on Sunday. While riders skew younger, referendum voters skewed older.
Murphy said the government of Paris stopped working with the company in the six months leading up to the referendum and that there were significant barriers to voting, including limited polling places and the Paris marathon, which happened on the same day.
“What’s happening in Paris isn’t indicative, necessarily, of the future of e-scooters,” Gauthier said. “I think it may be more indicative of political battles that people are deciding to or not to wage.”
A spokesperson for the Paris mayor didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A man in a suit rides an electric scooter through an intersection in Washington, DC.
Ralf Hirschberger/Getty Images
DC v. Paris
Meanwhile in DC, e-scooters have eased more slowly onto the scene. After e-scooters were introduced in 2018, users plummeted in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. But by 2021, ridership was up and e-scooters offered an efficient alternative for those who wanted to avoid enclosed spaces on mass transit or in taxis.
Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the devices offer an accessible form of low-carbon transport and are “more of a gateway than competition” to biking and walking in the city.
“Our main priority is just giving people better alternatives to driving and scooters are definitely that, for a certain kind of a trip,” he said.
DC has a growing network of bike lanes that e-scooter riders generally stick to.
“There are some issues with folks riding on sidewalks, but by and large people are riding in the bike lane, riding on the street,” Browne said.
—Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) May 23, 2019
Everett Lott, DC’s transportation chief, said the city is “laser-focused on providing equitable mobility options.” The DC City Council passed new regulations on e-scooters in 2020, including a requirement that they be locked to a bike rack or sign post, or parked in a scooter corral.
A spokesperson for DC’s Department of Transportation said the city has gotten fewer complaints “about scooters being left in inappropriate places” since the lock-to requirement was implemented.
One theory as to why the backlash to e-scooters in Paris has been much more severe than a place like DC is the prevalence of pedestrians. Much of DC – like most American cities – isn’t nearly as densely packed with pedestrians as Paris.
“The walkability in most US cities is really poor and therefore the distances are longer, the walking environment isn’t awesome, and so e-scooters are really popular and they fill a gap that existed,” Gauthier said.
People seen using Bird scooters in Reno, Nevada.
Ty O’Neil/Getty Images
A micro e-future?
Transportation policy experts say any micromobility program — efforts to promote lightweight transportation — needs safe and adequate infrastructure and must be carefully managed with city regulations.
“New micromobility modes are coming out regularly, every few months, and there are types and sizes and forms of vehicles that we’ve never seen before,” Sarah Kaufman, the interim director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, said. “Right now, cities are thinking in terms of cars, bikes, and pedestrians, but we need to be thinking about the suite of micromobility devices that we haven’t even seen yet.”
“What we’re seeing globally is that cities are actually expanding programs,” said Murphy, the Lime spokesperson. “The massive trend you’re seeing is not in the direction that Paris decided to take this.”
Despite the setback in Paris, transportation experts say electric vehicles of all sorts, from e-scooters, to e-bikes, to electric buses, are the future of transport in cities around the world.
Schwartz predicted that there will be a “return of the scooters” in Paris as the city dramatically reduces its car traffic and continues building its vast network of bike lanes.
“The more options we can give people, the better, and the more shared options we can give people over private ownership, the better,” Gauthier said. “That kind of diversity of transport options just makes the transport system much more resilient and better for people.”