Micromobility At Macro Scale
Having used one of those electric scooters, I am now an expert on micromobility, and I have opinions.
Last week I was in Paris on business, which is always fun. This was a proper multimodal trip, encompassing the following forms of transportation:
- Personal car to the airport
- Aeroplane from Milan to Paris
- Moto taxi from CDG to my first meeting
- Uber to my next meeting
- Lime-S shared dockless scooter to my hotel
- Taxi to airport
The moto taxi is always a somewhat terrifying experience, but I’ve been using them for years. It’s basically the only way to get anywhere in Paris at rush hour in less than an hour. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the idea is that you ride on the back of a Honda Goldwing (or sometimes one of those large scooters), which is big enough for there to be plenty of space for a pillion passenger and for carry-on luggage. The rider kits you out with a reinforced jacket, a helmet (with disposable liner), and a waistcoat with airbags that is connected to the bike via a breakaway connection. If you are unlucky enough to come off the bike, airbags around the neck will inflate and (with any luck) prevent the worst-case scenario.
Perched up high on the back of a Goldwing is the best vantage point from which to appreciate that most of the gridlock is composed of cars with only a single occupant. This is obviously not ideal for anybody, which is why alternative forms of transportation are such a hot topic lately.
Later that day, all done with my meetings, I was going to take a Metro to my hotel – but there was some sort of delay on the line, and then I spotted a scooter just standing there… I already had the Lime app from using it in Berlin with the dockless electric-assist bicycles there, so why not?
Unfortunately that first scooter had a cut brake line – the Bay Area does not have a monopoly on scooter saboteurs! By this point I was committed, though, and the app showed me that there was another scooter just around the corner with a full charge.
This second scooter was undamaged and zipped along quite happily. In the centre of Paris 25 km/h is plenty fast enough to keep up with traffic, and most larger streets have bike lanes which are physically separated from the car traffic, so it’s a very fun experience. I was only travelling for a single overnight, so my rucksack was no problem.
Compare The Car
If I had had my car with me, I would first of all have had to pay through the nose for parking1, not to mention the environmental impact of start-stop driving (this is what is driving the plan to ban internal-combustion vehicles in Paris by 2030). On top of that, driving in a congested situation like the centre of Paris is actually no fun at all.
The problem with the car is that my mobility needs would have been over-served, so I would only have experienced the downsides. The calculus would admittedly have changed slightly if it had been raining, or if I had had more luggage than a single rucksack, but then the delay on the Metro might have seemed more acceptable.
Either way, a full-size car is overkill in most (European) cities. Already today, my car hardly ever turns a wheel for journeys of less than a dozen kilometres. I would not want to ride a scooter to the airport (at 25 km/h!), but for a quick trip around town, a scooter or a bicycle are very hard to beat – especially if they could easily be augmented with public transport.
One factor that will help with uptake of these alternative forms of transportation is an easier way to bundle different forms of transportation together into a single logical "trip". This sort of aggregation is already beginning to emerge in various places: in San Francisco, the Uber app will let you rent JUMP bikes, while in Milan, dockless electric scooters can be unlocked using the Telepass app, which also lets users pay for motorway tolls, parking, congestion charges, and so on.
But Those Scooters Are In The Way!
My SF friends object to the scooters because they get left all over the place, obstructing pavements both when they are parked and when idiots ride the scooters on those pavements ("sidewalks", whatever) instead of sticking to the road or bike path. This is absolutely a real problem, but it’s not intrinsic to the scooters. It’s a combination of user education and available infrastructure. The Lime app I used in Paris asked me to take a photograph when I parked the scooter to make sure that it was parked somewhere appropriate. There are also red boxes on the map where the scooters cannot be left for any reason; Lime will charge users for retrieval if scooters are left in these areas.
These app features will already help to ensure that the scooters are in nobody’s way at rest. In motion, Paris’ excellent network of bike lanes reduces the incentive to ride on pavements. Given the width of American streets, there is plenty of room to add bike lanes there too, and to include physical protections beyond just a coat of paint. If there’s room to do this in the centre of Paris, there is room in every single American city, no exceptions.
I thoroughly enjoyed my multimodal trip, and I look forward to many more in the future.
Seriously, last time I parked a car in central Paris, it cost more to house the car than the hotel room to house its human occupants. Supply/demand, and so on, it does make sense, but it stung quite a bit at the time! ↩