Once it was les tricoteuses at the heart of a revolution in Paris – knitting and ghoulishly watching on as the guillotine blade fell. Now it is les trottinettes – electric scooters – that are causing uproar as citizens of the French capital turn their back on the two-wheeled transport gadgets – and each other.
For today’s citoyens it is a transport dream turned nightmare. Electric scooters were meant to be the clean, green commuting machines of the future, liberating traffic-clogged cities like Paris from fumes and jams. No wonder they were greeted enthusiastically in 2018, when the first hop-on hop-off, rent-by-the-minute scooter companies began plying their trade.
Just five years on, however, the scooters have this weekend been banned, following a public consultation in which an overwhelming 89pc voted to scrap them.
Paris is not alone. Stockholm moved last year to limit numbers of scooters; Copenhagen banned them in 2020, then relented, allowing them back with tighter regulation. Brussels, where many are sick of them, may be next.
It all represents a harsh lesson for Britain which was initially so slow to adopt the scooters it made the tech-companies behind them sigh. While Paris pulls the plug, this country is only half-way through a national trial period for scooters that’s due to last until the end of next May.
Yet there are those who have already made up their mind here, too. Kent County Council has told the Department for Transport it no longer wants to be part of the trial, with the councillor responsible, David Brazier, saying he would “truncate it before someone [is] seriously hurt”.
Last summer, 80-year-old Sarah Carter suffered a broken wrist, cracked jaw and broken cheekbone after she was struck in Canterbury by an e-scooter being ridden - against the rules - on a pavement. Carter later said the scooters were “lethal”. Earlier this month, a boy was given a 12-month referral order after causing the death of 71-year-old Lou Davis in Rainworth, Nottinghamshire.
“Pavements,” noted the judge, “are for pedestrians, and people in wheelchairs, or babies in prams. They are supposed to be free of vehicles of any type. This mode of transport should not be there.”
Latest figures nationwide reveal that, as the trial has been rolled out, accidents have significantly increased, from 460 in 2020 to 1,352 in 2021, with casualties rising from 484 to 1,434 – an accident rate three times higher than for bikes. Those who blame scooter riders for irresponsible behaviour may be comforted to learn that the vast majority of those injured are the riders themselves. Indeed, all of the 10 people killed in accidents in 2021 were scooter riders, showing that, just as pedestrians are vulnerable when heavy scooters travelling at 15mph come whizzing up the kerb, so scooter riders – the vast majority of whom wear no helmet – are exposed on the roads.
This, then, is the great scooter conundrum: a danger on pavements yet unsafe on the roads, just where do they fit into our transport network? It is a conundrum entrenched in British law, via the Highways Act of 1835 which bars them from pedestrian zones, and the Road Traffic Act of 1988 which prohibits them from roads and cycle lanes too, leaving them with nowhere to go.
A national trial, testing e-scooter rental schemes in areas from Somerset to Newcastle, is meant to find a legislative path through this problem. More than 23,000 rental scooters from the market’s big players – Lime, Tier, Dott and Voi – now whizz round England’s streets, with 4,400 in London alone.
The vast majority of e-scooters, however, are bought privately from shops and websites – and are likely to number more than a million in Britain. The catch is they remain illegal if used anywhere except on private land. Yet police forces appear to turn a blind eye, seizing just a few thousand each year, according to figures from 2021. I vividly remember once popping into a shop selling scooters to be told by the owner that there was little chance of being stopped by the boys in blue, this despite him boasting that his machines could go well beyond 20mph. Today, the legal situation means retailers like Halfords stock a wide range of e-scooters only to proclaim them against the law “on public roads, cycle paths or pavements”.
If the police are generally uninterested, the same cannot be said for the fire service, which is increasingly having to respond to fires caused by dodgy, high-capacity batteries and chargers for private scooters and ebikes, often bought online. Some 88 blazes were reported in London last year, up from just eight in 2019. “On occasion batteries can fail catastrophically,” notes advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council. “They can ‘explode’ and/or lead to a rapidly developing fire.”
It is a combination of danger and disrespect that is not winning many older fans. In the Government’s own report on the national trial last December, polling showed that just 13pc of those above 55 thought e-scooter riders are “generally respectful of pedestrians” and 60pc thought them “a nuisance”. By contrast, they were popular with 18-34 year olds – a generational polarisation that helps explain, perhaps, why scooters have become socially and politically divisive.
“I hate them, I think they’re incredibly dangerous,” says one London mother. “I’m constantly moving kids out of the way as they career towards us on pavements.” A Milton Keynes resident fumes about abandoned e-scooters from the city-wide hire scheme left strewn across pathways. “My mate’s in a mobility scooter with multiple sclerosis. He can’t get round them.”
Can e-scooters be saved from this fate as another weapon in the culture war and reclaimed as a practical addition to urban transport networks? Possibly. In Paris, operators fighting the ban have offered to implement over-18s policies, stop multiple passengers piling on, and add number plates so miscreants can be identified. Back in Britain, the DfT’s trial report suggests many problems are down to one thing: novelty. Its research found inexperienced users ride them badly or with misplaced confidence, often purely “for fun”. With time, however, it found those who stuck with scooters became more capable and responsible, increasing both their journey frequency and distance, so transforming their scooters into real commuting machines that replaced many car journeys. The report suggests that long-term subscription models, rather than the minute-by-minute models that exist now, may help deliver the original scooter dream.
For now, the battle for the streets is very much still raging. “No more e-scooters in Paris?” wrote Martine Simon on Twitter, celebrating the news. “When will other cities be so lucky? Strasbourg has become dangerous for everyone, big and small, young and old. The rules of the road are flouted.” Not everyone agreed. “Actually it’s terrible,” replied a young woman. “The scooters allowed me to avoid all the dangers and abuse [walking home] and just to waltz around Paris on summer nights and breathe. I love scootering.”
Then she added: “But I do have a big scar on my ankle as a result.” As the tricoteuses came to discover, it can be decades before upheaval on the streets settles down again. Revolution is just the beginning. And in Britain, today just as two centuries ago, authorities will doubtless conclude that the best way of preventing revolution spilling across the Channel is to embrace wholesale reform before it does. Otherwise scooters here will find themselves up for the chop too.