On the streets of Berlin, the latest trend in Big Tech is hard to miss. Rentable e-scooters have only been here for three months, but they’re everywhere – and not always where they’re supposed to be.
Parked scooters clog bike lanes and block sidewalks. Speeding riders create havoc for pedestrians who are forced to jump out of their path. They’re increasingly the topic of hot-tempered political arguments and popular podcasts.
And once every week or so, one of Voi Technology AB’s German staff has to drag one out of a body of water.
As Claus Unterkircher walks through the company’s Berlin repair shop, the regional manager of the Stockholm-based scooter company finds one that’s been waterlogged, likely retrieved from the city’s Spree River or Landwehr Canal. He tries to brush the situation off: “Probably more people drive their car into a river every day than scooters.”
His optimism is rooted in a deep belief in the company’s cause – that rentable motorized scooters can make the world a better place by lessening urbanites’ dependence on gas-guzzling cars. Investors ranging from Uber Technologies Inc. to Bain Capital LP have equally bought into this vision, plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into U.S. companies Bird Rides Inc. and Lime owner Neutron Holdings Inc., giving them global leadership positions in just a few years. Tens of millions of euros, meanwhile, have flooded into fast-growing European startups, including Voi, aiming to gain a global edge from the continent’s dense, less car-friendly cities.
But such optimism doesn’t overshadow e-scooters’ side effects. While American Big Tech trends usually creep into daily life incrementally, e-scooters can change the fabric of cities almost instantly. They have in Berlin, where more than 6,000 have hit the road in just three months; they can be found littering the streetscapes of Paris and Los Angeles; in Washington, it’s possible to be cut off at the National Mall by a parade of scooting, besuited twentysomethings in Make America Great Again hats.
These battery-powered e-scooters are usually unlocked with an app for a small fee, are controlled with hand-throttles and brakes along bike lanes or sidewalks, and charge riders by the minute. Companies tend to allow drop-offs anywhere within a preapproved zone – and thus scooters can be left behind in the middle of sidewalks.
Parent companies send employees or contractors, colloquially called “juicers,” around cities to replace dead scooters with fully charged ones. In Canada, Bird and Lime have placed hundreds of scooters in Edmonton and Calgary; Lime has rolled out as many as 500 scooters in Montreal; and Bird recently launched a pilot in Toronto’s Distillery District, though the city just moved to ban the vehicles on municipal property.
Few cities have had as swift and calamitous a rollout as Berlin. Since Germany legalized e-scooters in June, central Berlin’s streets and sidewalks have become clogged with the tangerine, teal, salmon and lime-green machines. They’ve cluttered historic sites, forcing the city to ban their parking at the Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburg Gate. Riders weave from bike lanes to sidewalks, sometimes doubled up and sometimes drunk, ignoring that they’re operating a motor vehicle. It’s common to watch riders dump their scooters in the middle of walkways or bike paths when they’re done. Dozens of accidents have been reported, some serious. Vandalism is rampant, ranging from mild knock-overs to ripping out sensor boxes to mysterious fires.
Then there’s the river dumping – German comedian Jan Bohmermann has made it his latest crusade, hinting on a podcast that while he doesn’t want to advocate for crimes, the scooters appear to be very easy to drop into the Spree.
“You can’t just put anything on the streets to make money with it,” adds Falko Liecke, deputy mayor for the Berlin district of Neukolln. He’s frustrated that the federal directive to legalize e-scooters has left cities to deal with the consequences – including when the machines are left haphazardly in walking or biking paths, which is annoying at best and dangerous at worst, including for the visually impaired.
In July, he once found a Lime scooter sitting on the platform of the U-Bahn transit stop by his office; elsewhere in his district, he says they’ve been thrown into bushes and even high into trees.
Both governments and scooter companies need to take a greater role in controlling the less-than-polite human behaviour that the new transportation methods can bring, Mr. Liecke says. Some Berlin districts plan to turn some car-parking spaces into dedicated scooter parking areas next year, but he wants to see more stringent rules around sidewalk parking and fines for companies that allow haphazard parking.
A spokesperson for the Berlin Senate’s transportation department said in an e-mail that the city saw e-scooters’ rollout as a success, given their popularity, but admitted there have been “problems from the very beginning,” including with poor parking. But, Jan Thomsen continued, “If something is new like the scooters, you see them just everywhere and it is always the scooters you find annoying – not the broken bikes on the ground, the wrongly parked cars, the bikers on the sidewalks.”
And even though more 65 accidents caused by scooters and at least one potential arson have been reported to police, with 87 scooter-related criminal investigations opened, appetite for the scooters in Berlin is rising. While Voi launched in Berlin, for instance, it brought in 200; it now has 2,000 on the streets. “It’s fun, and I get everywhere faster,” said Karoline Ramalho as she parked a Lime scooter outside the Goethe Institute language school in mid-September. “It’s more fun to ride than a bike.”
Berlin may present an outsized nuisance to scooter companies because of its sheer size – 3.6 million people – and core old-build density. Stewart Lyons, chief executive officer of Bird Canada, says that since the company rolled out scooters in Calgary and Edmonton this summer, “a bunch” have wound up in Calgary’s Bow River and other waterways. “With any new popular thing you bring to the city, you’ get a bit of confusion,” he says, but he’s told by global colleagues that the cities’ launches were “pretty good and orderly” compared with other markets.
As the summer comes to a close, the question of e-scooters’ novelty lingers – will riders keep hopping on board in the cold? Mr. Unterkircher says that Voi, which launched last year in Scandinavia, saw “not quite a large dip” in winter ridership. He expects to see the same here: “People in Berlin bike when it’s cold.”
Seasonal sustainability might matter less to investors than financial sustainability, though – and profitability doesn’t yet seem easy. Bird, for example, lost US$100-million in the first quarter, according to The Information. These kinds of losses haven’t stopped investors from buying into European startups; Berlin’s own Tier Mobility GmbH raised €25-million ($36.8-million) last October, including from Point Nine Capital.
“It’s one of these megatrends – it’s about reconfiguring transportation in cities to electric,” says Pawel Chudzinski, a partner at Point Nine. “I think Europe is the best market for this in the world, and I think by extension, there will European companies that become significant.”
Tier launched in Berlin with 500 scooters, but now has 1,500 of its teal-coloured machines on the streets. “We see this as just the start,” says co-founder Julian Blessin. “It’s one of the, if not the most, dynamic markets since delivery. … My personal opinion is that we are at the beginning of an urban mobility revolution.”
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