Scoot­ers are go

The elec­tric trans­port revo­lu­tion that has set its sights on the UK

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

Step­ping out of the Gare du Nord rail sta­tion, one of the first things I see is a young man rid­ing a large, black elec­tric scooter along a cy­cle path, zip­ping by as cars re­main stuck in traf­fic be­side him.

This may be a new sight in Paris, but it’s not an un­usual one. Two US tech­nol­ogy gi­ants have set their sights on the city as a test­ing ground for their be­lief that the fu­ture of trans­port lies in the form of dock­less elec­tric scoot­ers which can be lo­cated us­ing a smart­phone app.

Bird and Lime, two US com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing scooter ser­vices, are keen to ex­pand to Lon­don and are lob­by­ing hard for changes in the law which bars them from Bri­tain’s streets.

Stroll through Paris and you can’t help but no­tice the scoot­ers. There are women rid­ing them with shop­ping bags, on their way home from the su­per­mar­ket. One man uses a scooter to get to work. Many are left on the pave­ment, wait­ing for their next rider.

Paris has changed since Au­gust, when Bird and Lime launched their com­pet­ing scooter ser­vices in the city. The city gov­ern­ment cleared the way for the com­pa­nies to op­er­ate, and the streets are now filled with thou­sands of scoot­ers. “We’re go­ing through a pretty big revo­lu­tion here,” said Ken­neth Sch­lenker, Bird’s head of France.

To ride one of the scoot­ers is easy enough. There are so many here that it typ­i­cally takes only a cou­ple of min­utes to hunt one down. Once you’ve found it, you scan the code on the front and start your jour­ney. It costs €1 to start a ride and 15 cents for each sub­se­quent minute.

The scoot­ers re­sem­ble over­sized ver­sions of the brightly coloured ve­hi­cles small chil­dren pro­pel along the pave­ments on their way to school. But these adult ver­sions have a rea­son­ably pow­er­ful elec­tric mo­tor. Kick off, hit the ac­cel­er­a­tor but­ton and you can travel at speeds of up to 15mph on reg­u­lar Paris cy­cle paths.

When you ar­rive, sim­ply stand the scooter up neatly on the pave­ment for the next rider.

Tech­nol­ogy in­vestors have backed these busi­nesses with hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, bet­ting on elec­tric scoot­ers as the fu­ture of trans­port. Cities are clogged with cars and pol­lu­tion, the think­ing goes, and we still don’t have a good so­lu­tion for “last-mile” trans­port – the jour­ney be­tween home and the near­est pub­lic trans­port stop.

The scoot­ers have taken over Paris, with Bird boast­ing of 50,000 cus­tomers in the city, and they are be­ing launched across Europe. But in their quest for Euro­pean dom­i­na­tion, the com­pa­nies have hit an ob­sta­cle: the UK.

It is il­le­gal to ride a pow­ered scooter on pub­lic roads and pave­ments in the UK, and any­one caught do­ing so faces a fine of £300 and six points on their driv­ing li­cence.

One law block­ing the launch of scooter-shar­ing ser­vices in the UK is the High­way Act 1835, which re­stricts the move­ment of “horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine and cat­tle” as well as “car­riage of any de­scrip­tion” on UK roads.

For most com­pa­nies, le­gal ob­sta­cles like this would be a show-stop­per. But in true Sil­i­con Val­ley style, Bird and Lime aren’t giv­ing up so eas­ily. They are busy hir­ing staff in the UK, con­fi­dent they will soon be able to launch here.

Bird was founded by for­mer Uber em­ploy­ees and Patrick Stu­dener, the com­pany’s Euro­pean head, speaks flu­ent Sil­i­con Val­ley. He speaks proudly of the fact that Bird has “aligned its north star” with cities around the world. He refers to the col­lec­tion of laws stop­ping the busi­ness op­er­at­ing in the UK as “na­tional-level block­ers” and “gat­ing items” which need to be “up­dated”.

One of the com­pany’s in­vestors, In­dex Ven­tures part­ner Martin Mig­not, is less mea­sured. “It ab­so­lutely sucks [that Bird can’t op­er­ate in the UK] be­cause of some stupid, old reg­u­la­tion that dates from the 19th cen­tury and doesn’t make sense to­day,” he said.

Mig­not be­lieves one of the rea­sons the UK has been slow to change the laws around elec­tric scoot­ers is the coun­try’s 2016 de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union. “The UK gov­ern­ment is to­tally paralysed by Brexit and [elec­tric scoot­ers] are fairly low on the agenda,” he claimed.

Ear­lier this year, the Depart­ment for Trans­port car­ried out a con­sul­ta­tion on the fu­ture of trans­port, to which Bird sub­mit­ted ev­i­dence. Min­is­ters are con­sid­er­ing chang­ing laws to al­low the elec­tric scoot­ers, with one source in­side the Depart­ment for Trans­port say­ing that it be­lieves the scoot­ers are an “in­ter­est­ing idea” which could help “get peo­ple out of cars”.

Stu­dener said many cities are still re­cov­er­ing from the launch of dock­less bi­cy­cle com­pa­nies, many of which de­ployed thou­sands in cities overnight with­out the proper li­cences to op­er­ate. That ex­pe­ri­ence has left cities con­cerned about the de­ploy­ment of other dock­less trans­port ser­vices such as elec­tric scoot­ers.

Even if it takes years for the laws to change, Stu­dener plans to keep his team in Lon­don. “Even if it’s a longer process,” he said, “it’s worth fight­ing for be­cause it would seem crazy to me that ev­ery­one in Europe has ac­cess to this al­ter­na­tive and the only peo­ple that don’t are Brits.”

In the mean­time, Bird is tri­alling its scooter ser­vice in the Queen El­iz­a­beth Olympic Park in East Lon­don. For £1 a ride and 20p a minute, em­ploy­ees who work in of­fices in the park can use the scoot­ers on the path­ways be­tween 7am and 9pm ev­ery day.

The park is pri­vate land, mean­ing Bird can ex­ploit a loop­hole to op­er­ate legally. The busi­ness hopes small-scale tri­als will con­vince the Depart­ment for Trans­port it should be al­lowed to op­er­ate across the UK.

“I think this trial is go­ing to be well-re­ceived be­cause we can get a lot of data from this to share with reg­u­la­tors to show this is some­thing that is good for the UK,” said Richard Cor­bett, Bird’s UK head.

Lime is also start­ing a small trial in the UK, but is ex­pected to test its dock­less bi­cy­cle-shar­ing scheme in Mil­ton Keynes and sev­eral other cities in the UK rather than start­ing to op­er­ate its own scooter ser­vice. The com­pany has also de­ployed hun­dreds of scoot­ers in Aus­tralia.

De­spite be­ing the fastest start-up ever to reach a “uni­corn” val­u­a­tion of $1bn (£764m), Bird still sees it­self as an un­der­dog fac­ing hos­tile reg­u­la­tors around the world.

The com­pany’s first rider in the UK was Michael Ed­wards, the Bri­tish skier bet­ter known as “Ed­die The Ea­gle”.

“The sim­i­lar­i­ties with us are un­canny,” Cor­bett said of Ed­wards.

It’s a rather bizarre mes­sage for the tech­nol­ogy uni­corn to send, com­par­ing it­self to a man who fa­mously came last in the 70m and 90m ski jump­ing events in the 1988 Win­ter Olympics and prompted the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee to cre­ate new reg­u­la­tions stop­ping hob­by­ists like him from com­pet­ing again.

None­the­less, Bird iden­ti­fies with Ed­wards’ spirit. “The ea­gle has landed,” he smiled tri­umphantly as he an­nounced Bird’s UK trial.

‘The UK gov­ern­ment is to­tally paralysed by Brexit and elec­tric scoot­ers are fairly low on the agenda’

A woman rides an elec­tric scooter sup­plied by Lime in Paris, where the dock­less twowheel­ers have taken over the city

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.