Good and bad news from Paris, San Francisco

April 13, 2023

By Roger C. Lanctot
Director, Automotive Connected Mobility

Just a week ago, a tiny fraction (less than 10%) of eligible voters in Paris voted to ban rental electric scooters. Once welcomed with open arms by the city’s leaders, these conveyances have come to be regarded as both dangerous (responsible for dozens of fatal crashes and hundreds of injuries) and a nuisance and perhaps redundant given the widespread availability of public transit — and bicycles in Paris.

The Paris ban is expected to take effect at the end of August, when existing contracts with rental scooter operators expire.   The news from Paris is good news for bicycles, which have benefited from 700 kilometers of dedicated lanes and other infrastructure and generally operate with fewer restrictions and wider acceptance.

There were four main rules for rental scooter operation in Paris:

  • It is illegal to ride scooters on sidewalks
  • Maximum speed at 20 kph
  • One rider per scooter
  • Park only in designated areas.

It’s not clear that any or all of these rules were accepted by scooter users, with the possible exception of maximum speed — which could be electronically governed by the scooters themselves.  Scooters were essentially too fast to operate on sidewalks and too slow to operate on the street. And they were frequently left where they inconvenienced pedestrians.

In an odd twist, private scooter owners were at greater liberty to operate their vehicles at higher speeds, and private scooter ownership can be expected to endure.  But the vote was an implicit endorsement of bicycles, which have operated without a comparable level of injuries, fatalities, and complaints.

Critics of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s nonbinding referendum, which she said she’d treat as binding, have questioned the fairness of the voting process itself. Others have asserted that the decision to ban scooters was unfair to young people and students who predominate among scooter users.

First and foremost, the referendum was a reassertion of the primacy of the city’s — any city’s — policy priorities. Mayor Hidalgo has made clear her intentions to improve the quality of life for Parisians by reducing congestion and noise and air pollution. Transportation categories that came under threat early included diesel-powered vehicles, cars of all kinds, and parking.

Hidalgo was not alone in focusing on these priorities. Cities around the world have universally embraced the goals of zero fatalities, zero emissions, and zero congestion. The challenge has been to meet these objectives in a chaotic transportation environment disrupted by new technologies and VC-funded startups with the added roiling fillip of a global pandemic.

Car sharing, ride hailing, and micromobility, along with public transit, all took a severe dive at the outset of the pandemic. Car sharing, ride hailing, and micromobility recovered quickly. Public transit did not recover as quickly, though in Paris it is thriving.

The post-pandemic recovery of micromobility imparted a huge stimulus to the sector globally as regulators saw a need to enable two-wheeled transportation options while citizens were turning away from public transit. Today, cities are more concerned with herding their citizens back onto and into public transit. At the same time, the downside of micromobility has become clearer from negative interactions with both pedestrians and other vehicles.

The complaints about micromobility are flowing into municipalities faster than the regulations governing the sector can be drafted. The intensity of this turn of events — the ebbing of the pandemic and the need to restore public transit — has been exacerbated by the VC-fueled onset of new transportation options.

Ride hail and micromobility operators arrived on the scene as guerilla marketers. The ride hail operators recruited their drivers and deployed their apps. The scooter boosters sprinkled cities with their two-wheeled wonders.  

What has ensued has become a battle over political influence waged by lobbyists. Those organizations, such as Uber, with the best lobbyists won. Scooter operators have nowhere near the political sway or financial resources of ride hailing companies.

The negative vote in Paris is a bad omen for the prospects of wider scooter support. When Mayor Hidalgo first arrived, she made clear that her two-wheel preference was for bicycles. (I’d personally welcome a ban on lane-splitting motorcycles on the Peripherique.)

Bicycle providers and public transit are likely to be the big winners in the wake of the Paris referendum. To survive, scooter operators will have to do a better job of building grassroots support and political leverage.

A week after that fateful vote in Paris, champion American cyclist Ethan Boyes was hit and killed by a car in San Francisco.  Bicyclists are injured and killed daily throughout the world, but Boyes’ death highlighted the failure of San Francisco to provide adequate protections for cyclists in the city.

New technologies, such as cellular-based C-V2X wireless communications, are a lifeline to help protect bicyclists, who remain exposed to deadly interactions with four-wheeled vehicles.  Cities, Paris included, appear to prefer and support bicycles but it’s clear bicycle riders need more support from technology, regulations, and infrastructure.


Photo by Vlad B on Unsplash

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