Europe Is Taking a Wild Ride on E-Scooters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This has been the summer of the electric scooter in Europe; but the U.K. and Ireland, which still ban the things, are probably right to hold out. So far, no government in the region has figured out a good way to regulate them.

U.S. e-scooter sharing companies like Bird, Lime and Jump (a subsidiary of Uber) have all been expanding in Europe this year. There, they face competition from local startups like Stockholm-based Voi and Berlin-based Wind. It’s impossible to determine the exact number of scooters that have appeared on the streets this year, but it’s likely to be in the tens of thousands. At this point, they look more like a plague than a transport solution.

Germany permitted e-scooters on cycle paths and roads in May, limiting their speed to 20 kilometers per hour. The following month, they were made available for sharing in Berlin. It is estimated that there are now 5,000 of them on the city’s streets and, in the two months since they appeared, they have been involved in 40 accidents in which six people were seriously injured. That’s a significantly higher serious injury rate per vehicle than for cars.

At least no one has died on the streets of Berlin yet. But Paris, which has some 15,000 scooters, has already seen its first fatal crash: a 25-year-old rider was killed by a truck in June. A truck also ended the life of a YouTube star in London, where e-scooters aren’t allowed on the roads. In May, the first e-scooter user died in Brussels. No other vehicle was involved in that crash – but the scooters are hard to control on uneven road surfaces and, with hardly any riders wearing helmets, than can be deadly.

It's possible, of course, many accidents occur because riders are only just learning how to use them. A U.S. study earlier this year found that 29% of all injuries occur to first-time users. But, even so, it makes sense to ask whether this new transportation mode contributes usefully to city life.

To justify the risk of riding an e-scooter and the chaos the gadgets create for pedestrians, the new mode of transportation needs to solve some mobility problem – say, the “last mile”, or helping people get to subway stations. But e-scooters don’t quite do that in Europe now for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they are only available in limited business areas – mostly in city centers, which are already well-served by public transportation. In Berlin, not a single scooter sharing company covers the entire city. 

Secondly, rides tend to cost more than public transit. In Berlin, the price of a 2.5 kilometer ride is about 2.80 euros (that’s $3.12 per 1.55 miles), while the same trip by bus or subway would set a rider back 1.70 euros. Even car sharing, something which is ubiquitous in Berlin, is likely to cost less for that distance.

But, then, aren't e-scooters environmentally friendlier than most other modes of transportation? Not really, according to a recent paper by Jeremiah Johnson and his collaborators at North Carolina State University: Over their life cycle, they have bigger global warming impacts than buses, electric mopeds and bicycles (except shared dockless bikes). Only the personal car is “dirtier.”

It is a little counterintuitive to think of e-scooters and bicycles as having an environmental impact, but their production and use leave a carbon footprint, as do the cars and trucks used to collect them from around the streets.

It’s unclear, too, to what extent scooters are replacing other vehicles. About 35% of Lime riders in Brussels told the company they were reducing their car use, a fall that is roughly in line with independent U.S.-based surveys. But, so far, no city has reported a reduction in vehicle traffic attributable to the devices’ availability.

For sure, sharing an e-scooter is a great way to see a city. One recent French study found that a full 42% of users are visitors from other cities, and 69% say they ride the things because they are fun. So city governments are reluctant to ban them because they don’t want to be spoilsports. Some countries, such as Poland, Italy and Slovakia simply allow e-scooters without any specific rules. None of this, however, means that there shouldn’t be tighter regulation.

The same French study says a majority of current users would be put off by rules forcing riders to wear helmets or park in designated places only. Indeed, tourists don’t tend to carry helmets with them when they travel, and parking restrictions are likely to emerge in exactly those places they most want to see; Brussels, for example, has already made it illegal to park scooters in the most attractive areas of the city center.

To me, the injury statistics appear to be a good argument for making helmets obligatory, and restricting parking makes sense. The pedestrian area in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is littered with e-scooters.

Hopefully, cities might encourage more tourists to enjoy them on foot. With luck, the scooters will become less widespread as cities tighten up the rules, and operators are forced to serve areas that aren’t well served by public transportation. Meanwhile, the novelty will wear off, too.

Until then, what’s happening in Europe is a big, chaotic experiment. For governments, it makes sense to watch others make mistakes rather than plunge in head first. In the meantime, watch where you walk.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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