Kick scooters, bikes and motor scooters: the boom in free-floating urban transport
In just one year, free-floating vehicles have revolutionised cities and solo transport.
Free-floating transport is best described as no-strings-attached driving. It’s a simple concept: users can geolocate the nearest self-service vehicle and start it up via an application on their smartphone. Once they’ve got from A to B, they can park the vehicle wherever they like – no need to spend time looking for a set drop-off point. Rather than taking out a subscription, customers only pay for the time they spend using the vehicle. So, for an electric scooter that can travel at up to 24 kilometres per hour, users pay on average a €1 flat fee, plus 15 cents per minute.
A resounding success
This flexibility is attracting more and more city-dwellers. “What’s interesting about free‑floating transport is that it encourages users to branch out into different ways of getting around,” says Nicolas Louvet, founder of 6t, a research firm specialising in mobility. “Free-floating vehicles help people discover means of transport that they would never have thought to use. Aside from giving them something new to learn, it helps reduce congestion on public transport.” With so much going for it, it’s no wonder that free-floating transport has been a resounding success. “In France, free-floating transport is fairly recent. Self‑service bicycles have been available for more than 15 years, yet free-floating bicycles already make up 20% of all public bicycles in France,” says Nicolas.
Finding ways to coexist
There now seems to be no limit to the options. In Europe, electric motor scooters, bicycles and kick scooters are fighting for space on the pavements of not just capital cities, but also urban hubs such as Lyon, Grenoble, Metz and Bordeaux. However, this boom is not without its problems, as many pedestrians can attest: zigzagging between kick scooters and bicycles parked on pavements can quickly become tiresome. Some municipal authorities have taken drastic measures. In Valencia, Spain, kick scooters from the US company Lime were banned after only eight days of use, and London has so far refused to allow them.
But other, less radical, solutions are also materialising. Last June, the Paris municipal authorities opted for a code of conduct signed by all stakeholders in the sector. Users can be fined for parking motor scooters on pavements, and bicycles left on pavements must leave a space of at least 1.4 metres so that people with pushchairs or wheelchairs, for example, can get past. In addition, there has been talk of the city of Paris introducing fees for commercial use of public space and creating mandatory parking areas for bicycles and kick scooters. Cycling capital Amsterdam, also faced with the problem of disorderly parking, has announced that it plans to create 17,500 bicycle parking spots at the central station by 2020.
Another major challenge for operators is how to recharge and maintain the thousands of vehicles scattered across the city – especially since free-floating vehicles are often the target of deliberate damage. The problem is so significant that Hong Kong-based Gobee.bike had to put an end to its service in France after only four months. In a press release, the company explained that nearly 1,000 of its bicycles had been stolen and nearly 3,400 damaged. Vandalism can drive up maintenance costs to an exorbitant level.
So, is free-floating transport profitable? Well, let’s say that it will have to improve to survive. For example, it needs to evolve to offer users access to a vehicle as close as possible to where they are located. At the moment, vehicles quickly become concentrated in the most visited areas, such as entrances to underground train stations and business districts, which means that operators then have to use trucks to move hundreds of bicycles to less saturated parts of the city. But Danish operator Donkey Bike seems to have found a solution by creating virtual stations. The application shows users specific drop-off points and charges them a fee if the bicycle is left somewhere else. Incentivising cyclists in this way not only brings reallocation costs down but also prevents parked bicycles from taking over in public spaces.