Atop my escooter, I am a human in a city of apes. With my back straight, I tower above my fellow road-users who are hunched over car steering wheels and bike handles. This newfound poise, however, lasts for only seconds at a time. At junctions, it is replaced by another emotion: the fear of being squashed by passing traffic. After a 20-minute ride, my hands ache from tightly gripping the handle. I am too scared to go much faster than 10 kilometers per hour, enough to keep pace with an amateur jogger.
This is my first time on an escooter in Paris or, in fact, anywhere. I glide gingerly past signs of a city in crisis. The French are in the throes of collective outrage caused by President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to raise the retirement age by four years. Refuse workers are on strike, so there are great mountains of trash on every street. Sometimes these piles ooze putrid liquid onto the road, which my escooter takes in its stride. In other places, the garbage has been set alight by demonstrators, leaving a charred smudge on the pavement. Near the River Seine, my scooter and I weave through a clump of heavily armored riot police.
Against this backdrop, Paris has decided to have its first referendum in almost a decade. But the referendum is not about pension reform, the cause of the ongoing riots. Instead it’s about escooter rentals. If Parisians vote against escooters on Sunday April 2, the mayor is expected to impose a swift ban. This is why I’m here: to spend a day experiencing Paris by scooter to understand why the French capital, once one of the most welcoming cities in the world for this new mode of transport, is on the verge of a dramatic U-turn.
Lime, a US escooter company that arrived in Paris in the summer of 2018, blames the shift in attitude on politics. The city’s early adoption of escooters was chaotic and crowded. By 2019, there were at least 10 companies operating in the city, with zero regulation. That led the city government to crack down in 2020, kicking seven operators out of Paris and imposing a limit of 5,000 escooters on each remaining company.
Lime was one of just three to survive the cull. Xavier Mirailles, the company’s director of public affairs in France, says those changes brought order to Paris. “From that day in 2020, we were in a good place with the city,” he says, over orange juice in a 9th arrondissement cafe. “We had a good relationship, with regular meetings.”
That changed, he says, with the election of the Green Party’s David Belliard, the new deputy mayor who is now in charge of transport, later in 2020. With Belliard in office, scooter companies say relations soured and their meetings stopped. “We are supposed to have a quarterly review of the services with all the operators, and this did not happen for more than a year,” says Mirailles. Belliard, who said in January that he backs a ban, did not return WIRED’s request for comment.
The opposition of the Green deputy mayor is awkward for the escooter industry, which positions the vehicles as an eco-friendly way to travel. Critics say the vehicles’ short lifespans mean they aren’t as sustainable as their operators make them out to be. And studies have shown that the manufacturing of early iterations of escooters and their batteries still produces 10 times more emissions than a privately owned bike—although escooter companies say the design has improved since the studies were carried out. Dott, Tier, and Lime say escooters in their current generation last for a minimum of five years.
Despite the looming ban, both rental and privately owned escooters are popular in Paris. They whizz past with students, people in suits, and couples sharing the same scooter. I try out the three available brands, (although Tier won’t accept my bank card) and end up with a preference for Dott because its scooters feel taller. At traffic lights, I receive nods of solidarity from fellow riders. The rental companies say there are a total of 400,000 unique riders in the city per month, with the demographics skewed slightly toward men.
At a café in the smart business district of the 8th arrondissement, I meet two members of Les Jeunes Avec Macron, a youth movement that supports President Macron. “I use scooters pretty often,” says 25-year-old Maxime Lohues, who mostly uses rental scooters after 1 am, when the metro closes. “After that I am not able to go home without taking a taxi—which is expensive—or getting the bus–which takes a long time.” His colleague, Manon Colombié, 22, says she feels safer as a woman riding an escooter than taking the metro late at night.
Safety is a key in this debate. Colombié might feel safer on an escooter, but pedestrians say the vehicles have introduced a dangerous new element. When a 31-year-old Italian woman was killed in 2021 after an escooter with two people on board crashed into her, some people’s worst fears were confirmed, “Not a day goes by that I don’t get the right-of-way cut off by a scooter, or witness a fall,” says Parisian Audrey Dupas. “I plan to go vote on Sunday, and to vote against self-service scooters which, in my opinion, are a real danger for pedestrians and for themselves.”
The escooter companies say they are investing in safety. Lime is working on pavement detection technology, while Dott believes it is down to the police to better enforce existing rules. Tier caps the speed limit of its scooters at 15 kilometers per hour for users’ first 15 rides, says Erwann Le Page, the company’s public policy director for Western Europe.
Dupas’ complaint is echoed by pedestrians across Europe. But for me, riding in Paris, the lure of the sidewalk is strong. It looks safer over there, away from the traffic. On narrow Parisian streets, my escooter mixes with a dizzying assortment of cars, bikes, buses, vans, and mopeds. I feel exposed—as if the power balance is off. Car drivers are encased in protective metal frames, whereas I have only a pogo stick between me and the traffic. When I reach a road with three lanes of rushing traffic, I get off and walk. I want to make it to my next stop alive.
Scooter supporters complain that the way the vote has been organized is skewed against them. In my time in Paris, I see only one poster advertising the referendum. Although an Ipsos poll paid for by Tier, Lime, and Dott found that 70 percent want to keep scooters in the city, supporters are worried about turnout. “There are many more people who do not use scooters than people who use them, so the vote against is likely to be in the majority,” says Stéphane Kaminka, a 56-year-old producer who plans to vote in favor.
Escooter companies also say there will be too few voting booths. “There will be one voting center for the 15th district, which is like the size of Bordeaux,” complains Nicolas Gorse, chief technology officer at Dutch-French escooter company Dott. To compound this, the referendum will be held on the same day as the Paris marathon.
For Gorse, escooters are important to help Paris build a transport system where people have the freedom to choose between different alternatives to cars. “We [the French] are not Dutch,” he says, alluding to the fact the Netherlands has tethered its green transition almost exclusively to bike travel. In France, the crossover between escooters and bike riders is small, he says, citing research that shows only 12 percent of escooter riders would have used a bike if an escooter was not available. “We have to respect the fact that in some cases, people prefer to have a standing position on the scooter than the seating position on a bike.”
If I had to choose, I would probably describe myself as a bike person. But riding my escooter down Paris’ iconic Rue de Rivoli, I see the appeal of converting to scooters. In the pandemic, this thoroughfare was transformed from a rushing artery of traffic into serene, segregated bike lanes. Minus the worry about cars, escooters offer an entirely different experience. My grip on the handle starts to loosen. It’s here that I realize the problem is not escooters; it’s everything else. It is the coexistence of escooters and cars that puts riders in danger and pushes them onto the pavement, where they threaten pedestrians.
Like many other cities in Europe, Paris is at a transition point. The current mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has been campaigning for fewer cars on the city’s streets. But to me, an escooter ban feels like the antithesis of that mission. It would be a victory for the automobile instead.