on my scooter I’m a man in monkey town. With a straight back, I tower over my fellow road users bent over the steering wheels of cars and handlebars of bicycles. However, this new poise only lasts for a few seconds. At intersections, it is replaced by another emotion: the fear of being suffocated by passing traffic. After 20 minutes of driving, my hands hurt from squeezing the handle hard. I’m too afraid to go much faster than 10 kilometers per hour, enough to keep up with an amateur runner.
This is my first time on a scooter in Paris or anywhere for that matter. I slide carefully past the signs of a city in crisis. The French are in the throes of collective outrage over President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to raise the retirement age by four years. Garbage workers are on strike, so there are huge mountains of garbage on every street. Sometimes these piles ooze putrid liquid onto the road that my scooter takes on its way. Elsewhere, protesters set fire to trash, leaving charred stains on the asphalt. Near the river Seine, my scooter and I make our way through a crowd of riot police in heavy armor.
Against this background, Paris decided to hold its first referendum in almost ten years. But the referendum is not about pension reform, the cause of the ongoing unrest. Instead, it’s about scooter rentals. If Parisians vote against escutters on Sunday, April 2, the mayor is expected to quickly implement a ban. That’s why I’m here: to spend a day exploring Paris on a scooter, to understand why the French capital, once one of the most welcoming cities in the world for this new mode of transport, is on the verge of a sharp reversal.
American scooter company Lime, which arrived in Paris in the summer of 2018, blames a change in attitude on politics. Early adoption of scooters in the city was chaotic and crowded. By 2019, at least 10 zero-regulation companies were operating in the city. This led city authorities to crack down in 2020, kicking seven operators out of Paris and imposing a limit of 5,000 scooters on each of the remaining companies.
Lyme was one of three survivors of the culling. Xavier Mirai, the company’s director of public relations in France, says the changes have brought order to Paris. “Since that day in 2020, we’ve been in a good relationship with the city,” he says over orange juice at a 9th arrondissement cafe. “We had a good relationship, regular meetings.”
That has changed, he says, with the election of the Green Party’s David Bellard, the new deputy mayor, now in charge of transport, later in 2020. With Belliard taking over, the scooter companies say relations soured and their meetings stopped. “We have to do a quarterly service review with all operators, and that hasn’t happened in over a year,” Mirai says. Billiard, which said in January that he supports the ban, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.