On top of my escooter, I am a man in a city of monkeys. With a straight back, I tower above my fellow road users who are bent over car handlebars and bicycle handles. However, this newfound equilibrium only lasts for a few seconds at a time. At intersections, it is replaced by another emotion: the fear of being crushed by passing traffic. After a 20 minute ride, my hands hurt from holding the handle tightly. I’m too scared to go much faster than 6 miles per hour, enough to keep up with an amateur jogger.
This is my first time on one scooter in Paris or really anywhere. I glide cautiously past signs of a city in crisis. The French are gripped by collective outrage over President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to raise the retirement age by four years. Garbage workers are on strike, so there are large piles of garbage in every street. Sometimes these piles of rotten liquid seep onto the road, which my e-scooter absorbs. In other places, the trash has been set on fire by protesters, leaving a charred stain on the sidewalk. At the River Seine, my scooter and I weave through a group of heavily armored riot police.
Against this backdrop, Paris has decided to hold its first referendum in almost a decade. But the referendum is not about pension reforms, the cause of the ongoing riots. Instead, it’s about escooter rental. If Parisians vote against e-scooters on Sunday, April 2, the mayor is expected to impose a ban soon. Here’s why I’m here: to experience Paris by scooter for a day to understand why the French capital, once one of the most welcoming cities in the world to this new mode of transport, is about to undergo a dramatic U-turn.
Lime, an American e-scooter company that arrived in Paris in the summer of 2018, blames the shift in attitude on politics. The city’s early adoption of e-scooters was chaotic and crowded. In 2019, at least 10 companies operated in the city, without any regulation. That prompted the city government to crack down in 2020, kicking seven operators out of Paris and imposing a 5,000 e-scooter limit on every remaining company.
Lime was one of only three to survive the cull. Xavier Mirailles, the company’s director of public affairs in France, says these changes have brought order to Paris. “From that day in 2020, we were in a good place with the city,” he says, sipping orange juice in a café in the 9th arrondissement. “We had a good relationship, with regular consultations.”
That changed, he says, with the election of the Green Party’s David Belliard, the new deputy mayor now responsible for transportation, later in 2020. With Belliard in office, scooter companies say relations deteriorated and their meetings stopped. “We are supposed to have a quarterly review of services with all operators, and this hasn’t happened for over a year,” says Mirailles. Belliard, who said in January that he supports a ban did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.