Pulling the plug - Issue 168 - Magazine | Monocle
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“Alas,” lamented a few Parisians. “At last,” said many more. After a referendum
in April in which residents voted overwhelmingly to banish free-floating rental
e-scooters, the French capital bade adieu to them on 1 September. Five years ago, the city became the first in Europe to introduce them at scale. It felt like a good idea at the time: an app would tell you where the nearest one was, you’d unlock it with a click and on you hopped. There was no obligation to wear a helmet or even a capacity limit; three people hugging on to a single e-scooter became a common sight. As for using the roads, riders preferred zigzagging on pavements, which was much more fun. And when you finished your trip, you could leave the vehicle anywhere. Hundreds were recovered from the Seine every year.

This fantasy of liberté quickly became a nightmare. The number of rental
e-scooters shot up to 20,000 in 2019 and 40,000 in 2020, according to analytics firm Geo4cast. They were everywhere, often piled in heaps in the middle of the pavement. The joy had gone. It became a tale of destruction, accidents and fatalities. Le Parisien reports that 1,193 people were injured by e-scooters between 2019 and 2022, and six people died. The city started regulating their use in 2020 and their number was capped at 15,000. It was an improvement but it felt like too little, too late. Most of us had grown to hate what we at first cherished.

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Does Paris feel different now that rental trottinettes have gone? There is certainly a welcome sense that sanity has prevailed. But e-scooters are still part of the scenery: privately owned ones haven’t been banned and people who loved to commute on them have just bought one. Those who have invested in their own e-scooters usually behave much better than the free-floating tribe: most wear helmets and neatly fold up their vehicles when they reach their destination, rather than leaving them in the street. 

E-scooters are only one part of the e-revolution and what the French call la mobilité douce (“soft mobility”). This shift in the way we travel has many guises: roller-skating, gyro pods, hoverboards (such as those made by Segway) and, of course, bicycles and e-bikes. Paris, which rolled out the world’s first city-run bike-sharing programme, Vélib’, in 2007, has developed its cycle lanes and services at great speed. Today, alongside Vélib’, which has about 400,000 subscribers, private providers offer about 13,000 free-floating e-bikes – a number that is expected to rise steadily as we approach next summer’s Paris Olympics. Meanwhile, laws have encouraged employers to finance their workers’ e-bikes or e-scooters. Since the pandemic, streets such as Rue de Rivoli, which runs east to west from Le Marais to the bottom of the Champs Elysées, have been given over to the softly mobile.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Paris’s experience with rental e-scooters, it’s that regulation should come before (rather than after) the introduction of a new mode of transport, especially in an old city that is popular with tourists and well known for its charming but narrow streets. After this calamitous episode, the French capital can now look forward more serenely to hosting the Olympics. Having won its bid by promising to halve the Games’ carbon footprint, the city is building dedicated “Olympic lanes” that will allow an expected 10 million visitors to cycle from one event to another. Those who want to go from the Stade de France to the Aquatics Centre (the only new permanent building constructed for the Games) can simply walk across a new bridge above the A1 motorway linking those two colossal sports arenas. 

In the end, the trottinette saga only reasserted the importance of orderly soft mobility. As far as urban transport is concerned, careful planning is always better than freewheeling improvisation. 

Paris-based journalist Poirier’s latest book, ‘Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950’, is out now.

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