So you want to get around Berlin the cool way? No crowded buses or impersonal subway stations, no tiring hikes on busy sidewalks or costly taxi rides? Easy. Take a two-wheeler from the city’s year-old scooter sharing service called COUP. Just €20 will buy you a full day on board a head-turning Smartscooter. Thirty minutes cost a mere €3, with basic insurance and a helmet thrown in. It’s quick – the bikes can hit 50 kilometers per hour in 4.2 seconds – it’s stylish, and it’s emphatically green. Electrically powered, the scooter produces no noxious emissions whatsoever. All it takes is a valid driver’s license and the courage to tackle the city’s traffic. In the words of the company’s website, “Having fun has never been better for the planet.”
For a new generation of eco-scrupulous city dwellers, the scooter is speeding back into fashion. And there’s no need to invest in your own machine as the much-vaunted sharing economy expands into yet another sector. Gogoro, the Taiwanese manufacturer of e-scooters that has partnered with Germany’s electronics giant Bosch to launch COUP, is just one of many such scooter-sharing outfits that have emerged to challenge automobile dominance. Since the launch of the first such scheme in Barcelona in 2013, others have appeared in 11 more cities around the world, and the locals are impressed. To meet rising demand, Gogoro added an extra 800 Smartscooters to its Berlin fleet in April, bringing the total to 1,000.
For at least a decade, the car has been falling out of favor among residents of Europe’s biggest cities.
If Green campaigners are happy now, they won’t be surprised by yet more evidence of alternatives to privately owned cars as the preferred means of urban travel. For at least a decade, the car has been falling out of favor among residents of Europe’s biggest cities, who have endured increased pollution levels, congestion and parking shortages, not to mention rising fees, tolls and permit costs. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of vehicles for every 1,000 people in London fell by 8 percent, according to data research company Euromonitor. In Munich, hometown of BMW, the figure plummeted by 16 percent. Fewer than half of all households in Paris now own motor cars.
In part, that reflects growing official hostility. Oslo plans to ban cars from the city center by 2019, Madrid by the following year – but it also speaks of a generational shift. Unlike their parents, urban-based millennials no longer see car ownership as an indispensable part of adult life. All the more so because car sharing is now an everyday option for so many. In car-loving Italy, sharing is a possibility in 29 cities. The Enjoy service has 500,000 registered users and a further 343,300 have signed up with its Daimler-owned rival, car2go. Worldwide, revenues from car-sharing are slated to rise from $1.1 billion in 2015 to $6.5 billion in 2025.
Does all that sharing make for a cleaner planet? Undoubtedly, according to the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, which published a study of car2go’s impact in five US cities last year. The headline conclusion: car2go users decrease their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 10 percent. The company is also responsible for 28,000 fewer vehicles on the roads. Each shared car eliminates the need for seven to 11 privately owned vehicles. Also, car2go fleets tend to be made up of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars than those driven by most Americans. Some sharing services even specialize in electric cars.
What’s unclear, however, is whether scooter-sharing will prove just as effective in clearing the road. For reasons of size alone, a bike can never be a perfect substitute for a car. Who takes the kids to school on a scooter? Still, there are plenty of snazzy features to woo prospective riders. Cityscoot, which runs a sharing program in Paris, uses bikes built by Germany’s GOVECS but fitted with Cityscoot’s own “black box” that allows a digital service to track each customer and pass on road conditions. There is no key for the ignition; riders receive a text message on their smartphones with a code that unlocks the machine. And there’s no searching the streets for an available bike, as the information shows up automatically on the Cityscoot app. As for recharging, Paris authorities allow Cityscoot to use the 300 charging stations set up for the capital’s Autolib electric car sharing service.
But it’s Taiwan’s Gogoro Smartscooter – retail price $4,000 – that excites true fans. Powered by a removable battery, it has an impressive range of some 100 kilometers per charge. And if the battery runs low? COUP, the operating company, can track the battery level. Whenever needed, employees cruising Berlin in a gas-powered (of course) van are available to slot in a new unit. The e-scooter’s look is eye-catching – Gogoro CEO Horace Luke is a designer by trade with stints at Nike and Microsoft on his résumé – and it can reach a useful speed of 95 kilometers per hour. Best of all, when the ride is over, customers can park wherever they like and simply walk away. For many city-dwellers, that makes sharing even more convenient than ownership – with none of the hassle or planet-hostile side effects.
Andreas Menn writes for the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. William Underhill contributed to this report. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org