Isabelle Vanbrabant, a pianist, is walking home through a park one spring evening in Paris when an electric scooter crashes into her, breaking her wrist in two places. Beronique Kilebasa is crossing a street with her seven-week-old baby strapped to her chest when a man riding a similar scooter collides into her, knocking them both to the ground. In another incident, a scooter speeds through a red light and straight into an 81-year-old man, killing him.
“Currently, there is a lot fuss around e-scooter sharing and it will continue for a while, since cities need to figure out how to accommodate the rising number of e-scooters in a safe and non-disruptive way,” so says pro-business Entrepreneur.
Because it’s the duty of city councils to accommodate disruptive innovation; critics don’t understand that the benefits of tech far outweigh any minor negatives such as visual pollution, pedestrians in ER rooms, or imminent death. Well, he was old and would have died, anyway.
“Enough of this bullshit.”
—Jérôme Courmet, mayor of Paris’s 13th arrondissement on e-scooters
“Silicon Valley is no longer the valley of innovators who solve problems, it has turned into the valley of resourceful stupidity.”
― Abhijit Naskar, The Constitution of The United Peoples of Earth
The popular consensus that tech companies can unleash all products on the world with impunity and consumers will buy it without thought, almost certainly has Ted Kaczynski, rightfully, nodding in his maximum security cell: I told you so.
A trip to Dresden. Typically, clean German streets throughout the center of the rebuilt city. Replica architecture doing its best to rekindle a grand past. Walking through the streets, I’m struck by the sheer scale of the visual pollution created by Lime scooters strewn haphazardly across cycle lanes and pedestrian areas. It looks like what it is: ugly scrap metal dumped thoughtlessly throughout the streets.
Technology is surely achieving what taggers and hack modernist architects have failed to do—despite trying hard—it’s making cities uglier. Visual pollution is just one small benefit the innovation of Lime scooters and other operators have bequeathed.
At least 29 people have died in electric scooter crashes since 2018. Electric scooters were to blame for at least 1,500 injuries and deaths in the US alone in 2019. The continued presence of e-scooters will inevitably lead to further avoidable pedestrian deaths.
For pianist Isabelle Vanbrabant, the accident has come at the cost of her career as a pianist at the famed Paris Opera. Doctors suggest it may take up to a year before her wrist is healed, though it is uncertain if she will ever enjoy the same movement she did before. “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 roll out electric scooters in Paris in June 2018. Being cheap, allegedly green, and needing only a smartphone and a credit card to use, tourists have been quick to adopt them. But since they were first introduced, over 20,000 of the two-wheeled machines have taken up residence on the city’s pavements, streets and boulevards. Jérôme Courmet, the mayor of Paris’s 13th arrondissement, called for “enough of this bullshit” in a sternly worded video recently posted to Twitter. 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.
The dockless nature of scooters like Lime’s mean people can ride them right to their front door, should they wish, but this precipitates another problem: Clutter.
“Despite their drawbacks, they have the potential to fill an important role in urban mobility when solutions to congestion and pollution are urgently needed,” states a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), adding that cities that embrace them have a lot to gain, “not least by making city centres more fun”.
Mayhem on the pavements is the fun they refer.
People have taken 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 thrown into rivers and canals.
There’s an entire Instagram account devoted to destroying rideshare scooters. A few months back, Sinan, a 25-year-old artist and bike messenger in Atlanta, saw a Bird scooter at a train station in the city. “I was feeling some sort of way, and there’s a balcony, so I picked it up and dropped the Bird off it.” The video now lives on the Instagram page of Bird Graveyard, an account that shares images and videos of neglected, destroyed, drowned and even immolated dockless rental scooters.
“At what point can somebody abandon property and expect it to be respected by the public?” Bird Graveyard ask, referring to the scooter company’s habit of launching their product in cities without fully consulting city officials first—a practice that saw Bird pulled from the streets of Louisville within 36 hours of showing up. “[Their business model] depends on the community doing free labor for them. Even if that labor is extremely insignificant, like moving scooters from your yard.”
To prove the point in a show of how little respect tech companies have for communities, Euwyn Poon, Co-Founder of e-scooter company Spin, described the company’s strategy of launching without consulting city officials as “innovating on the regulatory side.”
Jean-Rene Albertin, the partner of Isabelle Vanbrabant, 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.”
And there’s the proverbial nail hit on the head. Dimwits who think getting drunk and racing across pavements at full speed is cool, end up riding scooters. Electric scooters might revolutionize urban transport—if it wasn’t for stupid humans. Few riders don helmets, which are required in some locales. Lots of people ride double—even with small children—which is illegal practically everywhere. People ditch them on sidewalks, creating hazards for pedestrians.
“They’re just counterproductive to public transit,” Sinan says. “And they’re not being used for the right reasons by the right people. I mean, you get these douchebags who show up at the skatepark with these Birds.”
In Brisbane, Australia a special police task force was deployed to targeting dangerous electric scooter riders in the city. Thirty police officers were attached to Operation Romeo Overture which focused on riders who did not wear helmets. Seventy-five fines were issued in one night. An officer pulls over two people riding on one scooter—both without helmets. “The first question I have got for you is, why are neither of you wearing a helmet?” the officer asks.
They both reply: “I dunno.”
Their excuse for riding tandem was that they saw someone else doing it.
Buying into corporate marketing, doing what everyone else does, in lieu of personality or individuality, passes for cool.
Euwyn Poon, Co-Founder of e-scooter company Spin, described the company’s strategy of launching without consulting city officials as “innovating on the regulatory side.”
Authorities in Lisbon’s old town are battling shared electric scooters abandoned on sidewalks, which locals increasingly describe as a scourge. The Lisbon parish of Santa Maria Maior—which oversees much of the historic centre and the neighbouring areas—introduced fines between €60 and €300 for companies whose rented scooters litter sidewalks and public spaces. The council also banned the parking of the scooters on sidewalks and in places that “obstruct vehicles on sidewalks” and introduced a “removal fee” to be covered by the companies.
Over the past year, nine companies flooded Lisbon and eight other Portuguese cities including Faro and Coimbra with thousands of electric scooters. Lisbon Municipal Police said that it already removed over 1,800 badly parked scooters between February and June, charging fees worth over €17,000.
The Town Hall of Prague 1 has revealed it’s banning the use of rental scooters from the city center. New regulations will stipulate that electric scooters can only be used in bike lanes and on the roads with other vehicles. City Hall claims that Lime is too lenient and has failed to adhere to the conditions stipulated in the memorandum, such as providing scooter-storage areas or speedily removing poorly parked scooters from places around Prague.
“Lime did not meet any of our requirements for safety, so after a year of hard negotiations we have to take the next step and we are ready to restrict pedestrian zones in the city center,” said Prague 1 Councilor for Transport David Skála (Praha 1 sobě).
Prague 2 Town Hall recently announced it would file a criminal complaint against the company on suspicion of committing a crime of general menace. The district wants the scooters banned completely on its territory due to users riding on the sidewalk and parked scooters blocking the street. Accidents involving scooters have been on the rise. A survey shows 75% of Prague 2 residents oppose the scooters.
After the deadly threat to pedestrians in Paris from scooters being ridden or abandoned on the pavements, their city hall has introduced a 20 km/hr speed limit and fines of €135 for riding them on the pavement.
In Bruges, Belgium, the mayor has ruled out introducing e-scooters, saying they were “not right” for the city’s medieval streets.
Other cities are grappling with the problems caused by scooters. All of this takes council time and tax and ratepayers’ money while the scooter companies that caused the mess simply shrug their shoulders and say: it’s your problem, not ours.
Article continues below...
“Lime did not meet any of our requirements for safety, so after a year of hard negotiations we have to take the next step and we are ready to restrict pedestrian zones in the city center.”
Prague 1 Councilor for Transport David Skála
There’s little solution to e-scooters other than a total ban. At the core, there are two startlingly obvious problems which aren’t solvable. There's nowhere to put them, and there’s nowhere to ride them safely. Footpaths are for pedestrians, put scooters on them, and they’re dangerous for people walking. Roads are for cars and bikes; scooters are dangerous for cars and for the riders themselves. Emily Hartridge, a YouTuber, was killed on July 12, 2019, in a crash between an electric scooter and a truck in London. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
The only sensible answer would have been for e-scooter companies to invest in infrastructure first. To work with local bodies and put funding into building specific lanes to actually use their products safely. Anything else is reckless to the extreme. And this is the problem; tech companies aren’t interested. That’s an unnecessary expense. They’re all about maximizing profit with no thought for the cities or citizens in which they are operating. The business model is dump the product on the street, consequences be damned.
At its core, e-scooters are a symptom of capitalism run amok.
For every mile driven, scooters emit about half as much CO2 as a typical car, far more than cycling or walking.
"Are e-scooters polluters?" Study Published in Environmental Research Letters
Lime scooters in particular are advertised as an environmentally-friendly alternative to cars. When used as a substitute for walking or biking, however, they actually increase your carbon footprint.
What’s more, Nikos Zirogiannis, a research scientist at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, says in Indiana most of the electricity used to charge the scooters comes from coal.
A big reason for the explosion of scooters is their perceived eco-friendliness. "Cut back on CO2 emissions," proclaims an ad by scooter startup Bird. When a person finishes a ride on a Lime scooter, the app tells them, "Your ride was carbon free."
But this is a lie.
The vehicles actually emit much more than they claim, a recent study concludes. For every mile driven, scooters emit about half as much CO2 as a typical car, concludes the study, titled "Are e-scooters polluters?" Published in Environmental Research Letters, is the first scientifically rigorous look at the environmental impact of these trendy devices.
A new study from North Carolina State University also found that shared e-scooters may be more environmentally friendly than most cars, but they can be less green than several other options, including bicycles, walking, and certain modes of public transportation. Riders tend to think they’re making the right move by hopping on a scooter that’s electric and thus carbon-free. But what they don’t see are all of the emissions that are produced by the manufacturing, transportation, maintenance, and upkeep of dockless scooters.
“If you only think about the segment of the life cycle you can see, which would be standing on the scooter where there’s no tailpipe, it’s easy to make that assumption,” said Jeremiah Johnson, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State. “But if you take a step back, you can see all the other things that are a bit hidden in the process.”
Although touting their environmental credentials in reducing the carbon footprint in transportation, Lime and other e-scooter companies have been called out for dumping lightly used "e-Waste bikes and scooters" at scrapyards in the US and in China.
"These bikes when scrapped are actually a form of electronic waste," said BAN Founder and Director, Jim Puckett. "On the one hand, even the non-motorized bikes contain hazardous lithium-ion batteries and toxic circuit boards. On the other hand, they can be refurbished for children or used for transport in developing countries. If that is not possible, the parts such as GPS units, electric locks, motors, and wheels can be harvested. For both their value and their toxicity, these bikes should not just be treated as garbage or scrap metal."
"The question now begged is whether the new rideshare companies truly just care about the environment or are they really all about grabbing customer dollars and data," Puckett said.
"Cycling is an efficient way to prevent obesity."
Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis Report
For the ultimate answer to city transport, you need only look to Amsterdam. There are about 1.3 bikes per person, the most per capita in the world, and about 27% of all trips made are by bicycle—compared with 2% in Britain. Netherlands’ has world-leading bicycle infrastructure. Utrecht is building the world’s largest bike park, with 12,500 places. A map displaying bicycle routes when zoomed out makes the Netherlands look like a network of varicose veins.
How does this affect the society that uses it?
Cycling can do wonders for the body. Dive into statistics about the Netherlands. With 14.2% of the population classed as obese, the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of obesity in Europe. Compare this with the US where 39.6% of American adults are obese.
In 2018 the Netherlands Institute for Transport Policy Analysis published a report which concluded ‘cycling is an efficient way to prevent obesity’, and can even prevent emotional conditions such as depression.
Obesity and associated health issues are rampant throughout the western world; standing on an e-scooter is no answer. Resign the streets. Create more cycle lanes.
Cyclists are self-made adverts.
e-scooters: Damage to Society Rating 6/10