The searing heat in the Polish city of Wroclaw was turning one of my favorite hobbies — walking miles on a self-designed sightseeing tour — into a real chore. At every turn my eyes were drawn towards the clusters of electric scooters, their metal frames glinting in the sun. “Rent me,” they seemed to whisper furtively. “It will be so much more comfortable than walking.” And so, as I wilted onto a shaded bench, I gave in and downloaded the Lime app.
Once I’d started scooting, I realized how hard it would be to give it up. Everywhere I went that weekend, there was always a Lime scooter nearby whenever I needed one.
The number of electric scooters on the streets of Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth biggest city, is far from unique. I noticed a similar influx in Krakow, Poland earlier this summer, in Paris in May and in Lisbon last November. Originating in the US, scooter invasions of big cities are nothing new, although in addition to Silicon Valley mainstays Bird and Lime, Europe has its own batch of competitors: Circ and Tier, both from Berlin, and Sweden’s Voi.
But these companies just scratch the surface of the scooter options available. When 24-year-old London-based VC firm Northzone decided to invest in an electric scooter mobility startup last year, it was spoilt for choice, General Partner Paul Murphy told me.
In the end, his firm picked Tier after being convinced of the founder’s commitment to environmentalism and previous experience building a company called Rebuy, which was all about giving used electronics a second life. According to Northzone’s research, by far the biggest factor as to whether scooter companies can turn profitable over time (something none have managed so far) is their ability to make the scooters last as long as possible. Research published in May by Boston Consulting Group estimates most scooters have a life of around three months.
A rough ride
Longevity is a particular problem in Europe, where cities with ancient streets and varying levels of upkeep put scooters through their paces compared to newer, smoother streets of California where they first gained traction. According to a Bloomberg report last month, Europe’s cities are causing scooter companies to rethink aspects of their business models and improve the robustness of the models they’re using.
In Wroclaw, the two main hazards I encountered are features common to many European cities: cobblestones and tram lines. The only way I can describe the experience of traversing cobbles on a Lime scooter is to ask you to imagine the sensation of your brain rattling around haphazardly within your skull, sending your teeth chattering and causing your vision to blur so much as to be functionally useless. On several occasions, when pavements and roads were equally cobbled, I had no choice but to dismount, park up and complete my journey on foot.
Being new to the world of scooting, I couldn’t be sure exactly what model of scooter I was using, but some of the newer ones do come equipped with bigger wheels and better suspension, which offers some semblance of damage control when on bumpy ground. According to Murphy, this will only continue to improve as new models are developed.
“A lot of people look at scooters and think that that’s kind of the end game, but it’s really just the first incarnation” he said. “I think there’s going to be lots of innovation around scooters that work well in rain, really cold climates, potentially when the roads are a bit slippery. This is really just phase one in our mind.”
During this first phase, everything was is play, which has resulted in scooter companies descending into cities across the continent en masse. The worst victim of scooter invasion I’ve witnessed with my own eyes must be Lisbon. When I was in town for Web Summit last November, so were the CEOs of several Silicon Valley scooter companies — and they’d brought their scooters with them.
When the scooters first arrived, the city took an experimental attitude, which Murphy says was to its credit. Lisbon is a particularly hilly city, and on more than one occasion I found scooters abandoned partway up a steep incline blocking the narrow pavement and forcing me to step into the street to circumnavigate the obstacle.
With the cobbles, the hills, the tourists, the scooter situation quickly descended into chaos. It was, as Murphy described it, “the perfect storm.” Scooter companies provide guidelines for parking the vehicles respectfully, but in reality many users don’t follow the rules, which caused Lisbon to introduce fines earlier this summer.
When I arrived in Berlin this week, the scooter situation seemed a tad more civilized. That’s likely due to legislation Germany introduced before allowing scooters to hit the country’s roads and cycle paths this June. These included a maximum speed of 20km per hour, a lower age limit of 14 and very specific specifications for the scooters to meet.
European cities have been burned before by startups such as Uber and Airbnb helicoptering into town and unleashing unforeseen havoc. Germany consistently has been one of the strictest countries regulating these companies.
Murphy praised Germany’s approach of deciding on the rules before opening up the market. “It really everyone knew exactly what they had to do to to be legal, to play,” he said.
But the rules have not solved all the problems — according to AP, German police said last month that 38 people had been injured in scooter accidents since June.
As I rolled around Wroclaw, encountering busy pedestrianized areas was perhaps the worst bit of scooting in the city (after the cobbles and tram lines). People were not yet conditioned to watch out for and move out of the way of scooters — and I totally got it.
The most instinctive human reaction when someone blunders into your path without looking where they’re going is to be annoyed. I’m not immune to this, and yet when I was on a scooter, my sympathies were almost always reserved for the other party. As I wobbled perilously through the streets my fear of accidentally hitting someone was very real.
The Techy Trends has widely reported on accidents involving scooters in the US. Unsurprisingly, introducing the scooters into Europe’s ancient and often narrow streets has not helped solve the problem that when the vehicles are traveling at speed, they pose a real risk to riders, cyclists and pedestrians. In Copenhagen, people are regularly arrested for drunk scooter driving.
In Paris, where scooters are referred to as “trottinettes,” accidents caused by scooter collisions have caused politicians to criticize companies and call for them to be banned, or at the very least better regulated. The city already fines people for riding on pavements, and will soon introduce speed limits.
Even Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who in trying to thin out the city’s traffic has been a proponent of green alternatives, described the situation as “not far from anarchy.” She is thinking of limiting the number of scooter operators to just three (from the current 12), and capping the number of scooters allowed in the city altogether to prevent the current 20,000 vehicles rising to an estimated 40,000 by the end of the year.
Right now there is a huge question mark hanging over London, where electric scooters are currently banned (not that it stops some people from using them — one scooter rider has already been killed in the city’s traffic). The ban is a product of old laws currently being reviewed by the UK’s Department for Transport, and could well be overturned to allow scooters into the British capital.
If London decides to allow scooters on the road, it will likely result in the biggest turf war between scooter companies that Europe has seen to date. With its congestion and air pollution problems, not to mention the size of the population and tourist industry, it presents a great opportunity for green transportation. But its ancient, narrow, overcrowded streets and relatively poor bicycle infrastructure also present a huge challenge. Following Berlin’s example and regulating their use ahead of time would help to keep things orderly, but according to Murphy, a London resident, to make it safe the city also “has to figure out how to get these cars off the roads.”
He thinks that in the long run, as regulation comes into play, as companies invest in more advanced models and as cities continue to replace cars with new green forms of transportation, Europe’s scooter problems will resolve themselves. What’s more, he believes that whichever companies manage to pull ahead in the continent’s diverse tapestry of countries will win eventually win the global market overall — so the battle is really on.
My brief flirtation with the scooting lifestyle in Poland allowed me to glimpse the good (the fun and convenience) and the bad (the discomfort, the messiness, the many perils) of electric scooters. I came away with the sense that scooters in Europe still have a long way to go until they overwhelmingly solve more problems than they create. Companies deploying them have a long, bumpy and oftentimes cobbled road ahead.