Society

How Paris Became The World's Electric Scooter Capital

Competition is fierce as no fewer than six self-service electric scooter startups vie for control of a Parisian market particularly cut out for the light mobility solution.

Electric scooters, like the pictured Lime, have taken Paris by storm
Electric scooters, like the pictured Lime, have taken Paris by storm
Adrien Lelievre

-Analysis-

PARIS — At this rate, there won't be any more colors available. A few days ago, red electric scooters from the start-up VOI and green scooters from competitor Tier made their debut on the pavements of Paris.

There, they rub their metal shoulders with the already present Limes, Birds, Bolts and Winds, all of which launched in Summer 2018. The newest modes of public transport hit the scene in a city already known for its groundbreaking transport solutions, from the Velib" bike-sharing scheme to the now-defunct Autolib" electric car-sharing program.

And the list of providers is still growing. Scoot is forming a team in Paris. Dott, created by two "Frenchies' in Amsterdam, will begin a pilot program at Station F early this year, and Wetrott", a company from Versailles, will arrive in La Défense in April. A year and a half after the birth of the first self-service electric scooter startups — in the United States — the global capital of this soaring new industry is most definitely Paris.

To compare, Madrid hosts three (recently suspended) operators. London has one, and in New York and Berlin there are none. No city other than Washington can even really compete.

The attraction of the City of Lights for these fresh startups is explained by demographic, geographic, political, and economic factors. With 2.2 million inhabitants, Paris is one of the most dense urban areas in Europe (around 21,000 inhabitants per square kilometer). As public transportation is regularly saturated and the distance between the north and south (less than 10 kilometers) and east and west (18 kilometers) are relatively short in comparison to other capitals, these businesses expect to do relatively well.

One scheme was to pedestrianize the paths on the right bank of the Seine.

The initial data provided by Lime and Bird, the American leaders of the business sector, seem to confirm this assumption. Six months after their arrival in Paris, the former claimed more than 2 million trips and 315,000 users. The latter estimates that more than 110,000 people have already used their service.

These start-ups benefit from their early arrival and financial clout. They have, respectively, raised $455 million and $415 million since their inception and quickly joined the ranks of start-up "unicorns." But their rivals aren't ready to bow down quite yet. They also raised large sums of money over the past few months and, to distinguish themselves, competitors Wind, Tier, Bolt, Dott and Voi make a point of showcasing their European identity.

All the newcomers are drawn by Mayor Anne Hidalgo's transport policies. Since her election in 2014, the socialist mayor has encouraged the growth of soft mobility (walking, bikes, scooters, etc), one of the priorities of her term in office. And she's taken multiple approaches to meet this goal.

One key scheme was to pedestrianize the paths on the right bank of the Seine. The decision was a blessing for scooter aficionados, who use the recently created bike baths with delight. "We favor anything that contributes to decarbonized mobility and to a modal shift from cars to other forms of transport, such as scooters or bicycles," says Christophe Najdovsky, deputy minister of transport at the Paris City Hall.

The almost-simultaneous arrival of these pavement cowboys can also be explained by the judicial flurry surrounding their activity. One of the goals of the upcoming Mobility Law will effectively be to create a regulatory structure for "free floating" commodities, a term that designates self-service vehicles without a docking station. In the meantime, scooter specialists are betting that it's better to be present in the Parisian market as soon as possible, even if they need to change their strategy after a few months.

But overall, these businesses are taking their chances in Paris because they are convinced that they can earn money by solving the "last mile problem," a crucial question in the transport sector. Indeed, at the metro or commuter-train exit, more and more Parisians are using scooters to get to work or home faster.

Fierce competition

"On paper, the economic model of these start-ups is attractive," explains Maxime Lescrainier, a consultant at Colombus Consulting. The purchase price of an electric scooter is between 400 and 600 euros. A trip costs one euro minimum, with 15 cents per minute of use. If the use is heavy, the start-up can hope for a quick return on investment, even if the cost of maintenance of the fleet is one of the big unknowns.

They're also provoking no shortage of fights with pedestrians.

These companies must also wait to see how scooters handle the threat of theft, damages, and privatizations by individuals; issues that drew three free-floating bike start-ups (Gobee.bike, Obike, Ofo) to withdraw from the Parisian market after just a few months.

Even though the six scooter operators offer rather similar services, the battle promises to be ferocious. "From now until the end of the year, the hypothesis of consolidation in the sector is raised," Lescrainier predicts.

While waiting to see who will emerge victorious, these businesses are already transforming the urban landscape. In the early morning, scooters of every color are deployed, occasionally haphazardly, on the sidewalks. They're also provoking no shortage of fights with pedestrians.

Concerned with both encouraging these transport options and correcting the dissenters, Paris City Hall is currently working on a charter of good conduct for the scooter start-ups, in the same vein as an already-signed charter targeted towards bicycle specialists. "The idea is that new operators sign this charter upon their arrival in order to facilitate the acceptance of the public. As, unfortunately, one sees some incivilities," Najdovski explains.

City Hall is also experimenting with parking zones in the 2nd and 4th arrondissement for all free-floating vehicles — motor scooters, bikes, and electric scooters — developments that few people could have imagined even just a few months ago.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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