Is Europe becoming more like China? On our streets, the answer to this question may soon be yes. In the People’s Republic of China, where scooters have rattled through the streets for decades, now they’re much more likely to hum. More than 20 million scooters with electric motors were sold last year alone—and the trend is still rising. Now a number of companies want to bring these little zero-emissions speedsters to the heart of Europe. “We’re planning to become a global brand,” says Token Hu, owner of the Chinese scooter vendor Niu.
What this means in practice can already be observed in cities such as Berlin and Paris. The vehicles have already arrived—and are becoming increasingly visible on streetscapes. “Cities are changing,” says mobility researcher Enrico Howe from Berlin’s Innovation Centre for Mobility and Societal Change. “Fine particle emissions are an ever greater issue, space is increasingly at a premium. The trend towards e-scooters is absolutely there. We’re observing very dynamic developments.”
The advantages are clear: scooters are ideal for quickly covering short distances in the city, particularly considering how congested big cities can get. Unlike with electric cars, the operating range is less of an issue. Furthermore, due to their lighter weight, they can use smaller engines and batteries that can easily be recharged at home, as with electric bikes. Finally, searching for parking becomes a breeze.
PHOTO: stocksy / Jesse Morrow
Despite this, the decisive breakthrough has yet to occur. Numerous manufacturers have been fairly unsuccessful marketing their few e-scooter models—so far, it hasn’t been a rousing success. There aren’t any exact figures for the number of smaller e-scooters out on the streets—their output of up to four kilowatts means they don’t have to be be registered. The European industry association ACEM assumes that the number of e-scooters out on the roads makes up no more than 2 percent of all scooters at most. In China, where millions of the vehicles have been sold and which should serve as a model, it’s been government intervention in particular that has helped make the e-scooter so popular. So why should they suddenly become the next big thing in Europe?
The magic word in the context of this European offensive is: sharing. “Many countries such as Germany are by no means scooter fans,” Howe explains. “But sharing presents an opportunity, since riding one doesn’t require you to buy it and be stuck with that vehicle for years on end.” Young people in particular enjoy zipping around city traffic without stress, but don’t necessarily want to own their own vehicle. Urban mobility will therefore basically be moving in this direction in the coming years. Howe continues: “In the end, multimodal mobility clearly favors e-scooters. Everyone should be able to organize their own mobility. And the problem of what’s known as the first mile and last mile plays a huge role in this. Users no longer ask themselves, ‘Where am I going to park my car now?’ but instead, ‘Where is the next shared mobility station?’”
E-scooters are joining the ranks of current possibilities, including car sharing and bike sharing—and in the best case compliment the other offerings. And figures show that the number of e-scooters out there is increasing—even if they are currently still at very low levels. Among the scooters being offered as rentals around the world, 80 percent of them are already electrically powered, with the largest numbers of e-scooters in Europe now humming through the byways of Berlin and Paris.
Cold Winters and Humid Summers
The scooter sharing systems work just like the large car sharing providers: a smartphone app shows where an available vehicle is parked in the city, the registered user can spontaneously book the scooter and then later park it most anywhere in the operating territory after they’re done driving it. Charges are either per minute, per kilometer or by a flat rate fee. Apparently it’s been so successful that providers are planning to expand. Niu Scooter from China hopes to follow up soon with nationwide dealer networks in Germany, Austria, France, Italy and Belgium. The company has announced plans to sell around 10,000 e-scooters annually in these five countries.
One thing that may put a damper on things is the weather: the cold winters and rather humid summers in much of Europe may limit scooter use. The available e-scooters have no roof and are impractical when the weather is cold or wet. They don’t have much room for luggage and can only be used in big cities, because the batteries aren’t strong enough for tours out to the countryside. Still, they’re not meant to replace the car, not yet, at least—just to provide a pleasant alternative for a nice sunny day.