-Analysis-

PARIS — At this rate, there won't be any more colors available. A few days ago, red electric scooters from the start-up VOI and green scooters from competitor Tier made their debut on the pavements of Paris.

There, they rub their metal shoulders with the already present Limes, Birds, Bolts and Winds, all of which launched in Summer 2018. The newest modes of public transport hit the scene in a city already known for its groundbreaking transport solutions, from the Velib' bike-sharing scheme to the now-defunct Autolib' electric car-sharing program.

And the list of providers is still growing. Scoot is forming a team in Paris. Dott, created by two "Frenchies" in Amsterdam, will begin a pilot program at Station F early this year, and Wetrott', a company from Versailles, will arrive in La Défense in April. A year and a half after the birth of the first self-service electric scooter startups — in the United States — the global capital of this soaring new industry is most definitely Paris.

To compare, Madrid hosts three (recently suspended) operators. London has one, and in New York and Berlin there are none. No city other than Washington can even really compete.

The attraction of the City of Lights for these fresh startups is explained by demographic, geographic, political, and economic factors. With 2.2 million inhabitants, Paris is one of the most dense urban areas in Europe (around 21,000 inhabitants per square kilometer). As public transportation is regularly saturated and the distance between the north and south (less than 10 kilometers) and east and west (18 kilometers) are relatively short in comparison to other capitals, these businesses expect to do relatively well.

One scheme was to pedestrianize the paths on the right bank of the Seine.

The initial data provided by Lime and Bird, the American leaders of the business sector, seem to confirm this assumption. Six months after their arrival in Paris, the former claimed more than 2 million trips and 315,000 users. The latter estimates that more than 110,000 people have already used their service.

These start-ups benefit from their early arrival and financial clout. They have, respectively, raised $455 million and $415 million since their inception and quickly joined the ranks of start-up "unicorns." But their rivals aren't ready to bow down quite yet. They also raised large sums of money over the past few months and, to distinguish themselves, competitors Wind, Tier, Bolt, Dott and Voi make a point of showcasing their European identity.

All the newcomers are drawn by Mayor Anne Hidalgo's transport policies. Since her election in 2014, the socialist mayor has encouraged the growth of soft mobility (walking, bikes, scooters, etc), one of the priorities of her term in office. And she's taken multiple approaches to meet this goal.

One key scheme was to pedestrianize the paths on the right bank of the Seine. The decision was a blessing for scooter aficionados, who use the recently created bike baths with delight. "We favor anything that contributes to decarbonized mobility and to a modal shift from cars to other forms of transport, such as scooters or bicycles," says Christophe Najdovsky, deputy minister of transport at the Paris City Hall.

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VOI scooter users in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris — Photo: VOI Facebook

The almost-simultaneous arrival of these pavement cowboys can also be explained by the judicial flurry surrounding their activity. One of the goals of the upcoming Mobility Law will effectively be to create a regulatory structure for "free floating" commodities, a term that designates self-service vehicles without a docking station. In the meantime, scooter specialists are betting that it's better to be present in the Parisian market as soon as possible, even if they need to change their strategy after a few months.

But overall, these businesses are taking their chances in Paris because they are convinced that they can earn money by solving the "last mile problem," a crucial question in the transport sector. Indeed, at the metro or commuter-train exit, more and more Parisians are using scooters to get to work or home faster.

Fierce competition

"On paper, the economic model of these start-ups is attractive," explains Maxime Lescrainier, a consultant at Colombus Consulting. The purchase price of an electric scooter is between 400 and 600 euros. A trip costs one euro minimum, with 15 cents per minute of use. If the use is heavy, the start-up can hope for a quick return on investment, even if the cost of maintenance of the fleet is one of the big unknowns.

They're also provoking no shortage of fights with pedestrians.

These companies must also wait to see how scooters handle the threat of theft, damages, and privatizations by individuals; issues that drew three free-floating bike start-ups (Gobee.bike, Obike, Ofo) to withdraw from the Parisian market after just a few months.

Even though the six scooter operators offer rather similar services, the battle promises to be ferocious. "From now until the end of the year, the hypothesis of consolidation in the sector is raised," Lescrainier predicts.

While waiting to see who will emerge victorious, these businesses are already transforming the urban landscape. In the early morning, scooters of every color are deployed, occasionally haphazardly, on the sidewalks. They're also provoking no shortage of fights with pedestrians.

Concerned with both encouraging these transport options and correcting the dissenters, Paris City Hall is currently working on a charter of good conduct for the scooter start-ups, in the same vein as an already-signed charter targeted towards bicycle specialists. "The idea is that new operators sign this charter upon their arrival in order to facilitate the acceptance of the public. As, unfortunately, one sees some incivilities," Najdovski explains.

City Hall is also experimenting with parking zones in the 2nd and 4th arrondissement for all free-floating vehicles — motor scooters, bikes, and electric scooters — developments that few people could have imagined even just a few months ago.


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