Forget car sharing – Paris’s shared electric mopeds are the future

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo showing off her scooter. Image: Getty.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago, is fighting for a cleaner, healthier city. The city has one of the densest metro systems in the world, its bicycle sharing platform is Europe’s largest, and in 2011 it opened an electric car sharing service that carries Parisians 93,000km ever day – yet the private car remains a backdrop to Parisian life.

And so, like many mayors before her, she has made private cars the principal target of her efforts to reduce air pollution.

Hildago’s latest effort to tempt motorists away from their cars is CityScoot, an electric moped sharing scheme. The service has grown by more than 500 per cent in the last year, now maintaining a network of 1,000 scooters across Paris, and is accessible to anyone with a driver’s license via a smartphone app. The service is paid for by the minute, with no contract required.

The CityScoot pitch is an attractive one: collect your electric moped from anywhere in inner Paris, ride it to your destination – for slightly more than a bus or metro ticket but less than a taxi – and then park it wherever is convenient and legal, no charging point required. I went to Paris to find out if CityScoot lives up to its promise.

I signed up with CityScoot’s smartphone app, which also controls the service. I uploaded photographs of my driver’s licence (car or moped, with free voluntary lessons available for those new to two wheels), handed over my card details and was ready to ride. The service costs 28 cents per minute all in, or 20 if purchased in bulk.

Reserving a scooter was simple. I selected the nearest of the hundreds visible on the app, yielding a four-digit code that unlocked it when entered on the scooter’s key pad. Rather than carrying my own, I used the helmet and hair net under the saddle and stored my bag in the compartment.

I zipped away from the lights much more quickly than any car on the road, but nowhere near as quickly as Paris’s ubiquitous peloton of lunatic motorcyclists, who zip effortlessly through tiny gaps between cars at high speed. I easily passed gridlocked traffic and jumped to the front of the queue at lights. CityScoots can run at 28mph, which is ample for inner-city travel, even amidst the apparent chaos of the Arc de Triomphe.

Few activities provide the feeling of transcending tourist-status like commuting by moped in a foreign city. Better served by an arsenal of French curses than by any highway code, I enjoyed a transient feeling of belonging as I heard a barked ‘putain!’ over the whirring of my CityScoot ’s electric motor. 

Scooters are also much better suited to the sharing economy than electric cars, free as they are from the requirement for expensive fixed charging infrastructure. The owner of Paris’s AutoLib electric car sharing scheme, Bolloré Group, has seen its efforts to bring the £100m scheme to London delayed by more than a year as a result of the unwillingness of London’s 33 local authorities to accept a common agreement on parking and charging infrastructure. CityScoot bypasses this quagmire by requiring no charge points, allowing users to park wherever is legal.

The 1000-scooter network is maintained by a fleet of electric vans that continually substitute drained batteries with full ones, bringing power to the vehicles rather than vice versa. In doing so, CityScoot reduces infrastructure overheads, maximises the network’s coverage by freeing it from fixed points, and increases its availability by eliminating the requirement for charge time.

Whereas AutoLib’s growth has stalled in the face of €179m loss forecasts, the market for electric scooter sharing continues to grow. This summer, CityScoot will face a new competitor of the streets of Oaris. Coup has grown by over 400 per cent in only eight months since its launch in Berlin last year. Now the Bosch subsidiary aims to release 600 of its electric scooters on Paris this summer.

The competition looks set to slash prices for consumers as Coup promises a €3 per half hour flat fee followed by a euro for every additional ten minutes, less than half the price of CityScoot ’s cheapest by-the-minute offer. This could plausibly transform electric scooter sharing from a novelty into a genuinely viable alternative for many metro commuters.

Electric scooter sharing services provide a cheap, clean alternative for inner-city car drivers forced off the road by ever increasing charges – and, during air pollution crises like that which struck Paris last year, driving bans. As competition leads to price wars, scooter sharing might even tempt some commuters away from ever more crowded buses and trains, while the prospect of zero emissions transport without investment in charging infrastructure and parking space is sure to appeal to local authorities. In increasingly post-car cities, electric scooter sharing is sure to be a fixture of diverse transport mixes. 

Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.

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A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.