On April 2 residents of Paris will vote on whether to ban rented e-scooters from the city’s streets in a referendum that is likely to have repercussions for micromobility operators across multiple European cities and beyond.
The Paris vote is pivotal as, for the past few years, the city has represented something of an exemplar for app-based free-floating electronic scooter and bicycle rentals as a serious option for revolutionizing urban transportation.
To this end, City Hall has provided ample supporting infrastructure in the shape of car-free roads and bicycle lane extensions leading to a n impressive 1.2 million riders across the city in 2021.
In many ways, the city’s e-scooter craze of the past five years eventually became a victim of its own success with an increasing number of opponents stating that the devices have become a hazardous nuisance and despite heavy levels of regulation remain severely prone to misuse.
As Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo prepares to put the appetite of Parisiens for maintaining free -floating e-scooter rentals as part of the urban landscape to the test – there are likely to be battle lines drawn out and dissenting opinions within the disability community too.
Across the channel, over in the U.K., charities like the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Thomas Pocklington Trust have been campaigning tirelessly to highlight the menace that irresponsible riding and parking of e-scooters poses to individuals with sight loss.
Given that e-scooters have to be ridden standing up – one wouldn’t imagine that the vehicles described last November as “dangerous” by Hidalgo’s Deputy Mayor and Green Party politician David Belliard would gain even one iota of interest or sympathy amongst wheelchair users.
However, a pilot scheme begun last summer via a collaboration between Dott, one of Paris’ three licensed free-floating e-scooter rental providers and Omni, a niche startup specializing in modifying e-scooters and providing a fixing system for attaching them to wheelchairs, may have gone some way to spinning that assumption on its head.
A prototype for the so-called OmniTrotter was unveiled last June and since then, the two companies have been working together to adapt 30 e-scooters across the country at a subsidized rate so that they can be easily be attached and decoupled to the user’s wheelchair.
The effect of this is to transform the humble manual wheelchair into a superpowered flyer capable of achieving speeds up to 20 km per hour with a whopping 60 km range.
The adaptation was achieved by lowering the handlebars of the scooter to a height suitable for a seated rider, offsetting the handlebars for enhanced comfort to avoid arm and shoulder pain and further modifying the scooter’s speed controller to allow for a departure of 1 km per hour to start the scooter, rather than 5 km for a standard rider, given that the wheelchair user cannot use leg propulsion.
Though still at a trial stage, the innovative device offers a potentially intriguing solution for wheelchair users to affordably and efficiently counteract the city’s somewhat inaccessible public transport system whilst taking advantage of its burgeoning bicycle-friendly infrastructure.
Given the relatively small trial size at present, users of the scheme currently rent their own adapted scooter and affix it to their wheelchairs as and when required for longer outdoor trips. However, the ambition is there for a major micromobility player such as Dott, who controls and operates 5000 e-scooters across the city, to add adapted scooters to their free-floating fleet locatable via their app.
This would enable any wheelchair user to just come into the city and grab a ride on-demand like anybody else.
In an interview given last year, Maxim Romain COO and Co-founder of Dott said, “We’ve had so many positive comments from users about how supercool and pleasant to ride the adapted scooter is and how it makes them feel so much more mobile by not having to pay for a taxi or use inaccessible transportation in a city like Paris.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Charlotte Allaux, Co-Founder of Omni and a wheelchair user herself:
“What we have is a fun solution because it’s not something medicalized,” Allaux says.
“Riders are using the same solution as everyone else. Sometimes, people don’t know how to react to someone in a wheelchair or how to help but in a high-speed powerful electric scooter they are looking at you differently because it’s just fun.”
She adds, “You can go really far and I can travel almost anywhere in Paris but it’s also possible to just slow right down and take it inside places like shops too.”
Unfortunately, if Mayor Hidalgo’s proposal gets voted through – the Dott-Omni collaboration will be dead in the water in its present form for the Paris municipality at least and an intriguing experiment in how micromobility can be made more inclusive will fade away.
Doubtless, as Sunday’s vote approaches, arguments on both sides of the dvide will rage on right up to the wire.
Opponents of e-scooters will point to the 24 fatalities from e-scooter accidents across France in 2021 and the fact that, when comparing accident statistics between the first 8 months of 2021 and 2022, figures jumped from 247 to 337.
Supporters of e-scooter rental schemes will maintain that statistically e-scooters remain safer than many other modes of transport and the technology exists to keep the rental market highly regulated.
In fact, in Paris, it already is thanks to several measures such as a requirement to not exceed 15,000 rentable devices across the city, the ability to track and control speed remotely and the requirement to display license plates so that offenders can be brought to book.
What is less up for debate is that micromobility, in one form or another, is certainly here to stay and as such, its potential for addressing urban transportation access barriers should be rightfully assessed.
However, when it comes to e-scooters in particular, in 2023, it does not appear that wider politics and society have settled on a firm position quite yet. Until that happens, those with a focus on accessibility and inclusion will just have to watch on and see how the dust settles.