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View from Brussels: Invasion of the E-scooters

Electric scooter sharing-schemes have sprung up in many of Europe’s capital cities and are proving to be hugely popular. But problems and public pushback have already started to emerge.

The streets of Brussels, Madrid, Paris and, soon, Berlin, are awash with fleets of e-scooters, which can be rented for a few euros and are easily unlocked with a mere scan of a QR code.

Quick-thinking start-ups have tapped into people’s desire to get between meetings rapidly, avoid often problematic public transport systems and, in some cases, tap into a certain amount of childhood nostalgia.

It is big business too: studies show that the global market could be worth close to $50bn by 2025, over $10bn of which would be in Europe alone.

On Friday (16 May), Germany’s upper house of parliament decided that e-scooters should be permitted on the country’s roads and cycle paths, but will remain illegal on pavements and will be limited to 20km/h.

It means that the United Kingdom is now the only major European country where e-scooters are not allowed to be used anywhere but on private land, with the expressed permission of the landowner.

Plenty of pedestrians across Europe wish that the situation was the same in their own countries though, as the e-scooter is quickly turning into something of a hate figure, mostly due to the way in which they are used.

It is now commonplace to see scooters abandoned in large piles in city centres, bike paths blocked and pedestrians hassled when scooter users do not respect the rules of the road.

The situation got so bad in Paris that the city authorities had the capital’s scooter operators sign up to a code of conduct on 13 May, which means scooters will have to be left in special parking bays and recharged using green electricity.

Companies with catchy-sounding names like Lime and Bolt have poured over 15,000 scooters onto Parisian streets. Many of those have ended up at the bottom of canals and used as weapons by ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters, who have been videoed hurling them at police.

In Brussels, the situation is much the same, violent protests aside, and a local hospital even revealed in early May that what is thought to be the first e-scooter-caused death had occurred.

Scooters generally fall under the same road laws as bicycles, so in Belgium users do not have to wear helmets. That is also the case in Germany, although the freshly adopted rules mean that there will be a lower age limit of 14-years-old.

There is little appetite among EU officials to get involved in regulating e-scooters at the moment, although some have privately said that the way they are used currently does not look sustainable.

Indeed, environmental groups have warned that e-scooters risk becoming another throwaway product, as some cities have already started swapping out and scrapping the vehicles after just a few months.

They use valuable materials like aluminium and lithium, which either have to be recycled or are wasted if not disposed of properly.

There are also concerns that e-scooters will add to urban mobility problems and not relieve them as hoped. Although touted as an alternative to polluting cars, snap polls show that e-scooters replace walking and public transport trips instead.

E-scooters also risk crowding out cycling infrastructure, which in many cities is still in its infancy and could struggle to cope with additional, motorised, traffic, according to Germany’s cycling association.

But the operators of the vehicles say they are not in competition with bicycles and maintain that they are the perfect complement to city public transport systems.

One company, Tier, had 10,000 e-scooters ready to hit the streets of Berlin by mid-June before last week’s vote result was known. The reaction of the German capital’s citizens could prove the final litmus test for what is becoming a controversial way to get around.

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