Scooters, bikes and other dockless, free-floating mobility solutions started to appear in the mid-2010s. Local authorities then started having to deal with these vehicles on pavements, devoid of any parking or charging infrastructure (freelancers or employees paid by the fleet owning companies are usually responsible for recharging them).
These vehicles have quickly become established as additional mobility solutions. A number of problems have arisen as they have become more popular: parking issues, environmental concerns and user safety all started to feature in the news at the end of the last decade.
As these new stakeholders and services have emerged, changes in the legislation enacted by both regional authorities and by private stakeholders (as well as in their practices) have resulted in an equilibrium of sorts, and a form of regulation. Nevertheless, the bans with which operators have recently been hit have led to questions about how these free-floating fleets should be managed. The recent ban on free-floating scooters (via a referendum) in Paris is a landmark and may serve as an example for other city authorities.
A recent appearance…
Shared micro-mobility solutions appeared only very recently. Although the first trials sometimes date back several decades – such as the white bikes that appeared in Amsterdam in 1965 or the yellow bikes that were made available on a self-service basis in La Rochelle back in 1976, it wasn't until the digital technology age – and the widespread availability of smartphones in particular – that these services experienced an unprecedented boom.
In 2017, a number of companies (often Chinese) such as Mobike, Obo, Lime and Bird started operating fleets of bicycles and electric scooters on a dockless basis. The primary advantage of these transport solutions is their flexibility – both for the user and for the companies operating them. The fact that no parking infrastructure is required – so users do not have to take them back to a particular station – is a particularly appreciated feature. Furthermore, these bike and scooter fleets supplement public transport solutions, but do not require any investment on the part of the local authority. This has been appreciated, including by a number of policymakers. The micro-mobility solutions that have been introduced have also been described as accessible and inclusive, constituting a “last mile” solution.
… With many negative points
Having said all that, there are numerous negative aspects to these free-floating self-service vehicles, chief amongst them being the anarchical way in which people sometimes return them: they are regularly found abandoned on pavements. The service life of these vehicles – sometimes less than a month because of all the damage they sustain – is a source of outrage for environmental reasons. This causes people to question the whole point of them – they can end up polluting rivers and streams, as well as other various natural environments in which they get left. And questions have been asked in particular about their economic model: freelancers with little in the way of job security are involved, and numerous services have been discontinued owing to a lack of profitability.
The fact that the services are enjoyed by young, predominantly male users for recreational purposes also raises questions about their utility.
Similarly, there are concerns over user and pedestrian safety. This has resulted in the maximum speed of electric scooters being limited, for example. The leveraging of data – at the heart of the business model used by start-ups such as Lime – and the establishment of minimum coverage perimeters (the case in Barcelona, for example), are important issues in relation to which public powers have only been able to respond after the event.
Developing management solutions for these fleets
Given the increasing numbers of services available and the fact that these vehicles use public roads, local authorities, which have been at a clear disadvantage, have successfully invoked article 41 of the LOM law on mobilities and obtained authorisation to have public highways and byways temporarily occupied. This way, selected operators of free-floating services can operate across their communities.
Free-floating mobility services can therefore get authorisation via the procedures normally applicable to traditional public transport services, namely public service delegations or public contracts. Local communities also have the option to go via a straightforward call for expressions of interest in order to grant service suppliers authorisation to operate over their areas. This method was used in at least 17 towns and communities between 2020 and 2021. Calls for expressions of interest are usually for short periods; the vast majority are for one to two years. Their purpose is to manage roll-out of the service, checking that commitments are properly adhered to (ensuring that vehicles constituting obstacles are collected within a certain period of time, for example). A fee can also be levied for all vehicles in operation.
In practice, these provisions have enabled regions to take control of such services – which were previously available in a somewhat anarchic way – ensuring that certain rules are adhered to. The levying of these fees, which are often very low, is evidence of the positive attitude that state authorities have to micro-mobility solution operators, which supplement existing public transport solutions. It should be pointed out, however, that a number of towns and cities are still against certain services. These include electric scooters in particular, which are still banned in Villeurbanne and a number of Paris suburbs, as well as Barcelona and Valencia in Spain. And the recent ban in Paris may result in a number of other local communities following suit. This first ban following a referendum got a significant amount of media coverage in France and overseas.
Services, but for whom?
The emergence of micro-mobility services without any kind of legal framework for regulating them has quickly been counterbalanced by the LOM law, which has enabled local authorities to take back control of them. Keeping the number of operators to a minimum, and ensuring that they adhere to certain quality and environmental commitments have helped foster an equilibrium of sorts between them and regional authorities. But this progress on regulation appears to have been jeopardised by the recent bans on these services. They do indeed have numerous negative points: people use them recreationally and in urban environments first and foremost, and they sometimes compete with public transport networks. Furthermore, their worth as part of the overall mobility chain still needs to be proven, and the vehicles are less than environmentally friendly. It seems appropriate to ask – like Catalan researcher Xavier Bach – who really wants these services, apart from the operators themselves?
 Survey conducted by research firm 6t, with support from the ADEME: Uses and users of free-floating electric scooters in France, June 2019.