In large cities across the world, electric scooters and similar vehicles are on the rise and seem to herald a new age of ecological mobility. Or is this just a flash in the pan? So far, the vast majority of cities remain car-centered, regardless of whether moving or stationary traffic is concerned. Many of them fail to even provide sufficient parking space for bikers. So, is there any room for electric scooters anyway? At this moment, they definitely attract attention as trip hazards in public space. The root of the problem is – once again – the car, as mobility researcher Andreas Knie explains, taking Germany as a case in point.
Who would have thought that grown men are prepared to use a scooter to get around the city. And enjoy doing so to boot! Propelled by electric engines, the new vehicles are called e-scooters. They are almost noiseless, run extremely well and using them is as easy as pie. Fantastic, one is tempted to say. But this does not apply to Madrid, Zurich, Paris or Berlin.
In these cities, as well as other places, the new scooters were greeted by a hail of protests and criticisms. People were wondering why these devices were even needed. Walking would make so much more sense, and anyway they were cluttering up sidewalks and developed a habit of obnoxiously being in the way. In addition, the truly inconsiderate were using scooters in pairs and would become a menace to the elderly. Serious accidents were reported; in most cases the drivers had been intoxicated and suffered severe injuries. The media response is impressive the world over, but this is precisely what is so confounding about it. Why do so many people get upset about the new vehicles? In principle, things have been taken care of. In Europe new regulations, specifically tailored to this new means of transportation, were adopted; after all scooters are motorized vehicles. Familiar drunk-driving rules apply and riding a scooter on a sidewalk is prohibited. People could be fined and punished for contraventions.
Germany as a paradise for car lovers
To be sure, we frequently come across scooters obstructing pedestrian space or bike paths in the most impossible manner. They seem utterly abandoned as if the drivers were summoned by some extra-terrestrial force and we needed to worry about their whereabouts. What such reactions elucidate, however, is the fact how much the rules and customs of an automobile society have become ingrained in our thinking and how much trouble we actually have trying to think differently when it comes to traffic and mobility. We get upset when scooters are parked on sidewalks. Indeed, parking them on the road is not allowed and thus these additional vehicles have to share with pedestrians a space that was already scarce and had recently become further populated by shared-use bicycles. The resulting competition of uses that many experts and commentators have pointed out, has led to frustration and anger. The real cause of the problem, however, lies elsewhere: roads are exclusively reserved for cars, not only when they are being driven but above all even when they are parked. We have become so used to this situation that we don’t even become aware of it anymore. It may be useful to recall that historically allowing private cars to be parked in public space is a quite recent phenomenon. This is especially true for Germany, a country whose population believes cars to be part of its DNA. Far from it! In the very country that today is viewed as a paradise for car lovers, it took a series of legal battles to carve out public space for automobiles. It was only in 1966 that Germany’s supreme administrative court legalized the public parking of private motorized vehicles. Prior to that, this was forbidden. In Berlin, the country’s largest city, you couldn’t even get a permit for your car unless you were able to prove that you disposed of a private parking space. Permanent parking in public space was simply not legal. Reading the 1966 court decision, which is basically representative of the views of all other European countries at that time, is highly interesting for its line of thinking and its language: “Since the beginning of the 1950s, the degree of motorization has increased to where there is, as of 1st July 1963, one car for every eight inhabitants, with a further steep increase to be expected. In the course of this dramatic development, the automobile has become an object of daily use for all parts of the population”, the court wrote. Today the ratio in Germany – excepting the very old and children – is one person per 1.5 automobiles.
In its 1966 opinion, the court further wrote: “This development has not just been tolerated but fostered by the state. The prologue to the Reich Road Traffic Regulations of 1934 reads: ‘The promotion of the automobile is the goal that this ordinance is intended to serve.’ … The increase of motorized traffic has vastly outpaced, however, the construction of roads and in particular of garages and parking spaces, which the Reich Garage Regulations seek to help provide in order to relieve public circulation spaces from stationary automobiles. The – inevitable – consequence is that a large part of motorists find themselves compelled to use public streets for everyday parking in the manner of street-light garages. Any observation of the actual traffic situation in municipalities across the Federal Republic will confirm this daily experience.”
The statement of the court’s majority opinion closes with a remarkable statement: “This proves that the parking of automobiles in public streets over night and on Sundays and public holidays corresponds to citizens’ mobility needs and constitutes a fundamentally customary and acceptable practice. It is therefore a form of parking as defined [by the Road Traffic Regulations].”
This court decision, symptomatic of the development of cities across the world, demonstrates two things: for one, the concept of parking cars in public areas was not originally part of the scheme of automobile motorization. Furthermore, the phrasing of the court decision provides hints at how the law could be changed: when governments declare their intention to comply with certain goals, such as the Paris Climate Goals for example, and the bicycles, scooters and other non-motorized for-rent vehicles require more space than expected, the conclusion to draw will be to use the public space for this overflow of vehicles. If many users do so, sooner or later the practice will be legalized – a line of argument that provides interesting perspectives for environmental movements such as Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion.
The expansion of sharing systems has reached the limits
This is a point we have not yet reached, however. In the current state of affairs, it is private cars that occupy the public space, with their operational time on average amounting to only 8% while 92% of a car’s lifecycle are spent in stationary position. Scooters, bicycles and non-motorized for-rent vehicles are forced to share the remaining public space. While this disparity is the cause of much frustration, the resulting conflicts should be carried out in a politically prudent rather than a gruff and non-empathic manner. What do we actually know about the behavior of users of e-scooter and other sharing products, apart from the fact that they are perceived as a “nuisance”? In terms of verifiable, authoritative knowledge we do not have much to show for at this point. What has been discernible so far is the fact that such vehicles tend to be rented as well as parked particularly near public traffic junctions. Proportionally, their users are more often subscribers to monthly or annual public transport passes. While for some interested observers, tourists still seem to be the dominant pioneer group, slowly but surely, and without getting much attention, a type of use pattern is emerging towards which the operators’ calculations had been geared, namely trips to and from the next available traffic junction. By offering service from door to door, sharing systems can compensate for the systemic drawback of overground and underground rail systems. The next difficulty to be confronted, however, is the fact that the expansion of sharing systems – whose services are still niche products – has already reached its limits. The available space on our narrow sidewalks is clearly insufficient. In addition, the business models that are being used lack a firm basis. E-scooter providers are currently still well-financed owing to risk capital, but this source of funding is likely to dry up by next year already. The core of the issue is that road traffic regulations are centered around the use of public space by private cars.
The cities of Europe are still caught up in the heritage of the Athens Charter of 1933, a vision of urban development based on separating the disorderly structures of the city into functional sectors of “living,” “working” and “leisure.” The sectors were to be geographically far removed from each other and connected by the automobile as a fast and flexible means of transport. Lamentably, this type of urban planning produced cities that were reduced to transfer spaces. Even if the removal of such compartmentalized urban structures and a concomitant reinvention of the city has been pursued for a while, the legal order and the primary definition of traffic space as an instrument for overcoming distances have remained in place and stand in the way of ecological and sustainable mobility concepts across the world. Commercial providers are usually not conversant with the existing legal system, and anyone wanting to make a profit by renting vehicles in public space, first has to find the space needed for them and will pay even higher prices for it than private users. Granting cars priority when it comes to the allocation of public space may have been a good idea in the 1950s, but it no longer is today. Compared to private cars, all sharing systems are burdened by high costs that usually cannot be recouped through ongoing operations. Only very few cities have made possible rather limited exceptions and support sharing schemes. A breakthrough has not happened so far. On the contrary, there are indications that the boom is already subsiding. BMW and Daimler have announced their withdrawal from the market and want to concentrate on a few large cities. Others are likely to follow suit. If this scenario comes true, there will once again be peace and quiet on our streets, a peace of the graveyard one is tempted to add.