Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
LimeBike’s fleet arrives at an opportune time, with the full blessing of city hall—but cultural and logistical hurdles could still pose a challenge.
Is Europe about to catch the scooter-sharing bug? Companies renting out these little two-wheelers have been a huge, unexpectedly fast-growing phenomenon in North America, but dockless scooters remain very rare in Europe, with only a few cities testing out limited fleets. That changed on Friday, however, when LimeBike launched its scooter-share system in Paris.
With several hundred vehicles up for grabs, the company is certainly taking the new market seriously. But will a transit solution that’s performed well in American cities transplant well to a city like Paris, with its very different transit and street culture?
On some counts, the concept might actually thrive. In fact, LimeBike has already adapted its model a little to suit local conditions. Gone are the freelance contract-workers-cum-bounty-hunters who, in the U.S., hunt down, recharge, and relocate scooters. Instead, LimeBike will employ a 40-strong team of staff to find and clear all vehicles off Paris’s streets at 9pm each evening. A professionalized service team is one of the cornerstones of the company’s attempts to reduce vandalism. This may mean that LimeBike gets a more even distribution of scooters across the city, at least in the mornings before users start relocating them.
The fact that you need neither a driver’s license nor a helmet to use a scooter-share vehicle in France should also help make uptake a little smoother. There’s also the long-standing habit of using mopeds, which should make the idea of low-powered motor vehicles less of a conceptual leap for locals. Finally, LimeBike has smoothed its path by making sure it has Paris City Hall’s full blessing, hopefully avoiding the wrangles that led to its banishment from San Francisco.
Recent transit failures in Paris could also blow a little wind under LimeBike’s wings, at least in the short-term. The city’s Velib’ bikeshare scheme, long admired as a pioneer in its field, is currently in disarray, its docks having widely malfunctioned since it was taken over by a new contractor last year. Meanwhile, the city is pulling out of its Autolib’service—an electric car-share scheme that’s been hemorrhaging money for some time. There’s no guarantee that frustrated bikeshare users will be tempted shift to scooters, but a window has opened up for LimeBike to do better against beleaguered competitors.
Scooter share’s success is by no means a shoe-in, though. By Parisian standards, LimeBike’s costs, while not exorbitant, aren’t exactly a great deal. The scooters have an unlock fee of €1 per ride and a cost of €0.15 for every minute thereafter, giving a rental cost of €5.50 ($6.40) for 30 minutes, which is probably the upper limit of a single journey. That’s similar to what scooter shares charge in the U.S., but not exactly a steal in a city where a single metro trip ticket costs €1.90 (or €1.49 if bought in a batch of 10). Add to this the fact that last-mile travel is less of an issue in Inner Paris, thanks to very short distances between the stations of a very comprehensive metro network. Taken together, scooter share looks a little less indispensable.
So far, it’s also hard to see where any volume of scooters would go without endangering their riders. On the road they’ll have to weave among fast-moving vehicles. On the frequently crowded sidewalks they might risk some serious resentment from pedestrians who feel that the only wheels that belong on the sidewalk are wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Out of use, parked scooters may take up much less space than bikes, but any spare room in a busy, dense city like Paris is at a premium, and new occupants are sure to be noticed—and possibly resented.
Finally, there’s the big V: vandalism. LimeBike’s scooters should be largely sheltered from outright theft by the fact that riders need to use a credit or debit card to unlock one. They are, however, neither alarmed nor heavy.
The French in general tend to be on the militant side if they feel a private company is encroaching on their space or convenience, and it wouldn’t take much to toss a scooter over a bridge into a watery grave in the Seine or Canal Saint Martin. If the scooters end up cluttering the footpath or generally getting in the way—without being seen to solve a major problem—their days on Paris’s streets could well be numbered.