E-SCOOTER APOCALYPSE NOW? The promises and perils of micro-mobility.

Only appearing in Riga last year, electric kick scooters have now taken the city by force after the first sharing services began to operate this spring. By the end of summer there are already 5 companies offering short term rides in a city perfect for scooting, yet with zero infrastructure for riding of any kind. It rises many opportunities for micro-mobility as well as many problematic situations for safety. Is the e-devil on two wheels as black as it's painted, or is it the future of faster, quieter and more breathable cities?

electric scooter, scooter sharing, eva saukane, ieva laune, capital r, 2019, latvian national library, latvijas nacionālā bibliotēka

Looking back in the history, the advent of electric kick scooters remind us of the growing popularity bikes faced around 130 years ago. Today bicycles are dominating the healthy, mobile and quiet way of commuting in cities. But during the mid-Victorian era there were many individual or collective anti-bike campaigns and rants (similarly to the ones against e-scooters today) demanding velocipedes being taken off the streets for safety, asking for them to only being used in races, or even declaring that bikes give too much freedom and empowerment to women and youngsters. Soon though, awareness of the benefits of healthy exercise for office and factory workers increased, thus praising bicycles and opening a new era for commuting particularly in Europe (while "velocipedomania in America was dead and forgotten" by 1871 along with "disillusionment" of bicycles)1.

"The awful effects of velocipeding". The New Comic Times (London Low Life); c 1870.

Today we see many benefits in e-scooters in Riga and elsewhere. They are always much faster than walking and also driving (in urban distances between 3-5 km). They are less sweaty than biking, much better for air quality than driving, more quiet than any motorized vehicle, and more compact than any vehicle in general. And if you rent one, they are cheaper than taxi (for the same 3-5 km distance). Like bicycles or mopeds, e-scooters are a good tool to luring people out of cars and reducing the space occupied by large vehicles in cities. As for those thinking that there is no physical exercise when riding e-scooters and it's just another way to get us fat, we must disagree at some point. Gaining momentum when kicking every time is a constant activity (especially when there's a lot of stopping in Riga - the city with red lights for everything else but cars). Also carrying your personal e-scooter up and down the stairs can be a drag. It takes place everyday since most people never park their own rides outside and decide bringing the 10 - 25 kg vehicle along (also, the city centre has more than many facilities without lifts).

The real challenges come when talking about the general safety, communal space and perception of reality. At first, only a few users wear helmets when scooting down the street at 25+ km/h (will not be advised when riding less powerful e-scooters that reach a regulated speed not higher than that of a common city bike). At second, Riga is a mobility-loving city with zero infrastructure for any riding being separated from roads and pavements, and too many tunnels, steps, drainage gullies and curbs. Where should I go? If I'm too fast, would I belong to the road being cramped in between cars? Or, if slow enough, manoeuvring through pavements and angry pedestrians?
Sounds Gothic, but everyone is secretly waiting for the first real bloodbath on asphalt for the national traffic administration to push and Riga city council to take first measures in order to build a proper riding and cycling road network.
At third, when there are too many rental two-wheelers and too few brain power, several social issues appear. One of them is the absence of common sense of humanity, and the sky-rocketing level of irresponsibility (common in XXI century, actually). The riders have difficulties tolerating pedestrians and the vehicles themselves when riding and speeding. Many are just outside their adolescence, many are on a responsibility-free short-term stay as tourists, and many don't even need a ride - just some reckless fun. Many users also don't have enough brain material to keep their vehicles away from the middle of the pavement, clogging them up, or to leave e-scooters in a position where they can't be easily knocked over.

Pedestrians, on the contrary, are impulsive and short-tempered, willing to harm or blame, rather than try and see, and their dreadful comments and irresponsible actions are bringing even more nuisance to the city. Ban everything! Throw them in the can! Only allowed at 5 km/h limit! Some passers-by are the real ones to blame, knocking many rides over or displacing them into ugly spots for fun. Several vandals in Paris were so irritated by the piles of e-scooters, many vehicles ended up being thrown in the river Seine for no constructive reason (that lead to withdrawal of Bolt services from there, btw). Following this "good" example - a kiddo in Riga did the same recently and is now being almost like head-hunted. Well, find it bravery or a protest form, but there is a modern Russian proverb to wrap this up in Riga today - "if someone is an idiot, it's for life."
 
During the "Riga Metro" special e-scooter ride, 2019 (©Eva Saukāne).

The Latvian traffic authorities are only forming regulations as we speak, and everything related to law is yet unclear. It's only reasonable the e-scooters, a new term in traffic rules, will be equated to bicycles - freely used at (theoretically) limited speed up to 20 km/h only by individuals older than 14, who own the rider licence and have no alcohol in blood. Sceptics are rising concerns - who's gonna check them? Who's gonna measure the speed, etc.? Well, most likely, the regulations will be applied similarly to bicycles again - we know the rules, but assume everyone also knows their limits. Anything else is just an overrated fuss.

As for fighting bad parking - it's something completely different. Bolt, CityBee and Fiqsy already ask users to take a photo of the e-scooter after leaving it - if you fail to be reasonable, you fail to have your next ride. Not sure how strict is the punishment, though, but this seems to be a great idea, and for many it works already as we see less and less e-scooters parked wrongly. Berlin and other cities in Germany will design restricted parking areas for e-scooters, limit amount of vehicles per rental company, and will ban leaving them on pavements and right next to tourist magnets2. We could do it, too, Riga has enough room for that. It slightly goes against the idea of micro mobility that e-scooters bring though - ability of going door-to-door. Although, would you even park your own personal scooter somewhere rather than can carry it around safely? So pump-up that healthy lifestyle, bro.
For many, particularly old-school people, it's super hard to understand - it's more important than ever to look for solutions rather than restrictions.
Despite the reasonable fuss and a significant research on why rental e-scooters might not be as good to the environment as thought (yet), it's clearer than ever already - owned or rented, the e-scooters are to stay in the city! If you're older than 18 with no intentions in carrying any extra passengers, there are five solid short-term ride sharing companies at your service today - ATOM, Bolt, CityBee, Fiqsy and KONG (fun fact - all are founded within the Baltic states, and another fun fact - many riders aren't even 18!). All together the companies might form more than 1200 vehicles in Riga available from 7.00 - 23.00 with each client measuring 1,5 - 6 km per use in average. If you want to visit a large chunk of the "allowed area" in central Riga (enough for rookies and even experienced urban explorers), here is some short info on all of them:
  • ATOM were the first in the market in (as well as from) Latvia. Being founded in 2018, the company launched their rental service in April, 2019, with 50 units that have presumably grown to 150. One can distinguish the scooters by their white steering column, and vehicles can be unlocked by Bluetooth. Uppers - some say ATOM provide the second largest available area after Bolt, are one of the cheapest and are also enabling independent operators to manage their own fleet of shared vehicles. Downers - the vehicles come with super unhandy lockers, and most of times the rides are locked where bikes should be; it can get annoying when the e-scooters occupy place that is already insufficient even for the bikes. The rental price as for 09.09.2019 is 0,90 EUR to start a ride + 0,09 EUR/min, or 14 € per day. The verification takes 15 - 30 minutes, and users need to buy credit of 5 EUR minimum. Although, when you purchase 10 or 20 EUR credit, the app awards you with extra 2 - 5 € value. P.S. We found a hack - when a I0F1L promo code is entered, it should give the first 12 minutes for free, and when TUBRAUCARATOM is entered - receive a 2 EUR freebie;
  • Bolt are the largest company in the business (500-strong fleet with 40km limit at full battery) offering ride-sharing since June, 2019, and are branded with the colour green. This Estonian start-up (registered in Latvia) is already known with a strong network of ride-hailing taxi services, thus using their app for commuting in Riga might feel like hitting the jackpot. The rental price as for 09.09.2019 is 1 EUR to unlock + 0,10 EUR/min, or 20 EUR per day. Downers - Bolt rides have an extra battery at the steering column that might make their e-scooters seem less stable at first. Uppers - Bolt covers the largest area in Riga (simply incomparable to others) and proves to be the easiest when many international users might have the app already requiring no extra downloads or registering. Bolt also offers a service to manage your own fleet of e-scooters as an independent operator;
Scooting area as available for Bolt. Screenshot; 2019.
  • CityBee are the most pop-cultural service from Lithuania, providing 100+ orange e-scooters with plastic wings as well as van rentals for cargo services since July, 2019 (not offering car-sharing in Riga yet like in other cities). Uppers - they prove themselves being the cheapest for short rides especially. The rent as for 12.09.2019 only costs 0,75 EUR to start + 0,10 EUR/min. Also, CityBee is the only service providing users with a quite alternative, yet still generetic and mediocre looking pdf city guide one can download from their web page (suggestions get improved by Facebook posts though). Finally, it seems that CityBee offer their service in Jūrmala too. Downers - their linguists took a day off when preparing the copy and other web texts, as well their graphic design and communication is the most adolescent and too artisan compared to others. Also - there are rumours their app performs poorly and rides have an extra battery at the steering column, too, that might make their e-scooters seem less stable at first. P.S. If you're looking for bonus rides, use the BZZ20MIN code for your first free 20 minutes (hope this still works) or join the "CityBee Squad" - by helping to collect the e-scooters you can get 1 € riding credit per each vehicle;
  • Fiqsy are another Latvian start-up also offering rental services with orange scooters distinguishable with their extended deck=beak to the front. Entering the market in June, 2019, they gave a promise to rise the number of units from 50 to 350 and seem to doing it well. The rental price as for 09.09.2019 is 1 EUR to unlock + 0,10 EUR/min, and users need to buy credit for 5 EUR minimum. Although, when you buy 10 or 20 EUR credit, the app awards you with at extra 10+ % value at least. Uppers - Fiqsy promote their service as corporate-friendly, and their e-scooters feel the most stable due to battery being mounted in the deck rather than the steering column. Downers - Fiqsy were well known for their 15km/h limiter that make many users unhappy, but they have sorted it out by now. Yet the app might fail. They have no "waiting fee" for the ride to be paused, but, after asking their administration, we found out Fiqsy are trying to implement the function as we speak;
  • KONG is the latest e-scooter sharing service in Riga that entered the market just now, in the beginning of September. Yellow in colour, KONG did not announced themselves and just popped up - with no press releases, with no sponsored social media pages and no content whatsoever. Upper - if you want to get 10 free minutes, use their promo code: KONGxWEB (funny, but the amount was reduced from 20 free minutes in just a week). Also, for now KONG seems to be the only one to offer "waiting fee", when you only pay 0,05 EUR/min while renting, but not riding your e-scooter. Downers - the area of use seems to be the smallest, and KONG services cost the priciest of all - it's 1 EUR to unlock + 0,15 EUR/min as for 09.09.2019. Also, the app seems to be slow, and there is no extra user information and much service help. For now it seems like an adolescent project made by adolescents, to adolescents, but let's see where it goes from now.

 

Once you have decided that scooting is for you, and have picked the most sympathetic sharing service, here are a few tricks and tips to live a happy life in a city with electric kick scooters (as well as few suggestions to pedestrians):
  • Be respectful toward your own and other two-wheelers and toward pedestrians. Remember that you will still be faster than them, so - why the rush?;
  • Don't drink and ride;
  • Park as close as possible to the walls and as far as possible from the centre of pavement or any roads in general;
  • When scooting in groups, park your rides as close to each other as possible;
  • If you see an e-scooter knocked over - be kind and lift it up. It's easy karma points, pal, despite the security noise that disappears in moments;
  • Don't hate everything unfamiliar immediately after it appears around your area. Even if you don't use it;
During the "Riga Metro" special e-scooter ride, 2019 (©Katrīna Ķepule).

It seems easier to be an ass rather than educate your ass sometimes. There's hope that responsibility in people will return in order to develop rather than limit the city life together. CAPITAL R surely believes there's absolutely nothing wrong with scooters, as long as the user is not a knob; same with any pedestrian. Riga is a city with so much street space for both - vehicles and pedestrians, and it's still very underpopulated. Managing the space correctly and meaningfully can bring satisfaction to all - riders, drivers, walkers, law makers. Why are we blaming each other, when there could be jogging on, educating and practising?


1 Smethurst, Paul. The Bicycle — Towards a Global History. Springer; 2015
2Parking bans and restricted zones: How German cities plan to crack down on e-scooters. Thelocal.de

Comments

  1. I saw a CityBee van dropping off both CityBee and Bolt scooters at 7:30am on a Sunday morning. I asked the employee why they were being dropped off together. He said they were kind of the same company. Was he confused or are those two affiliated?

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    1. Hi, Jeremiah! A good observation! The truth is - Bolt is Estonian, but CityBee is Lithuanian, therefore it is quite impossible for them to be the same company, and if anyone purchases any other, the public are most likely to find out about it. The case here could be the freelance operator thing that several carriers provide - you can participate as an independent business in managing the e-scooters by buying rights to handle a bit of the franchise, so, maybe the van was rented to one micro-company working for both operators.

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