The summer of 2020 was something of a heyday—and a Wild West—for e-scooters in Scandinavia. Rental companies had been swarming to the region’s cities—Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen among them—believing they would be easy e-scooter converts thanks to heavily ingrained cycling cultures and their strong interest in sustainability. As city officials balked at how to impose order on this new and untamed industry, the e-scooters were arriving by the thousands, finding willing riders everywhere.
The free-floating model—where e-scooters could be left or picked up anywhere—prompted complaints about the mess they made and the dangers they posed. Videos of e-scooter crashes crystalized anger on social media. There were reports of casualty wards filling up with drunk riders. For people who were visually impaired, their cities were becoming a daunting obstacle course. “There were a lot of accidents,” says Terje André Olsen, lead of the Norwegian Association of the Blind, an advocacy group with over 8,000 members, speaking from Oslo. “Many elderly people didn't dare to go out, and people used taxis more often to get to work because it was so complicated to walk on the pavements.” That summer, he adds, he counted around 40 e-scooters lying across the pavements during one 35 minute walk to work.
The e-scooter companies, however, were focused on high demand. “The first thing that we noticed [after arriving in the region in 2018] is that services were being used a lot more than in some other parts of Europe,” says Alan Clarke, UK and Nordic policy director at US-based e-scooter startup Lime, adding that the company’s e-scooters in the region were averaging five to six rides each per day. In response to those numbers, companies started scaling up their services. “We would have typically launched with a few hundred scooters, and I think by the peak in Copenhagen [in 2020], we had a few thousand,” says Clarke. The pandemic energized the industry further, with companies selling their services to both riders and investors as a clean, green way to travel around cities without sharing the same stale air as fellow passengers on buses and trains. By summer 2021, Oslo’s Urban Environment Agency, the government department responsible for the city’s public spaces, reported there were 30,000 e-scooters in the Norwegian capital, or 200 scooters per 10,000 residents, meaning it had more e-scooters per capita than any other city in the world. The numbers weren’t quite so high in other parts of Scandinavia, but the agency estimated that in Stockholm there were 125 e-scooters per 10,000 residents—still far higher than elsewhere in Europe: Berlin, Paris, and Rome all lingered below 50.
As Scandinavia’s e-scooter population kept rising, the mood toward the companies bringing them soured. “It’s a jungle. It’s a mess,” says Daniel Helldén, vice mayor for transport in Stockholm, where the number of e-scooters almost tripled from 2019 to 2021, jumping from 8,500 to 23,000. “The biggest problem is the parking. They are parked on the sidewalks in a way that makes it impossible for people to get through. If you are disabled in some way, it's a huge problem.”
A strict regulatory crackdown has quickly followed the growing irritation. In the past year, Nordic countries have been trying to wrestle their capitals back from this new industry and unceremoniously throwing e-scooter companies out of their cities. The marginal cost and the economics of operating large fleets of e-scooters means rental companies lost sight of their long-term relationships with the cities they were operating in, says David Mothander, Bolt's head of public policy in the Nordics. “Companies might be tempted to be short-sighted and try to flood the streets and gain advantages. But inevitably, the cities will react as we've seen in Oslo or Stockholm or Copenhagen. In a way, we have ourselves to blame for this.”
Copenhagen lost patience quicker than most. In October 2020, the city’s mayor of technology and the environment, Ninna Hedeager Olsen, decided to end what she described to DR as “unregulated chaos” by banning all 13 of the free-floating rental companies operating in the city. “What happened was three operators flooded the streets with these scooters … and the city just got fed up and threw them out,” says Mothander of Bolt. For a year, the free-floating model remained banished completely, with Copenhagen’s residents and visitors able to hire e-scooters only from companies with physical shops. But in October 2021, the city offered an olive branch, allowing a limited number of companies back under new, far tougher terms. “We have a restricted number of e-scooters, and also with pretty harsh rules of where we can operate and cannot operate,” says Mothander.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Bolt was not the only company to express consternation with Copenhagen’s new rules. “Although we’re happy to offer our scooters in the city again, we are disappointed with some elements of the tender, such as the inability to park in the city center where we know the majority of Copenhageners and visitors to the city would love to find e-scooters,” Eric André, Voi’s general manager for Sweden and Denmark, said in a statement on Voi’s website. Their complaints fell on unsympathetic ears, however, and by the summer of 2021, Denmark’s strict stance was being replicated by its neighbors just as Nordic capitals began reporting their first e-scooter deaths. In July 2021, police confirmed that a 68-year-old man had died from injuries sustained in an electric scooter accident in Oslo. In September 2021, an 80-year-old cyclist in Sweden died after crashing into an e-scooter parked across a cycle route. The same month, a hospital in Helsinki told Euronews that it had been forced to hire more staff to cope with the extra burden of scooter-related injuries.
In July 2021, it was Oslo’s turn to launch a crackdown. But instead of driving providers out, the city capped the number of e-scooters allowed at 8,000 and divided that number between each of the 12 operators that had qualified for a license. Limiting rental companies to only 667 e-scooters each, however, has not been a popular solution. “The problem is not fixed,” says Olsen of the Norwegian Association of the Blind. “We have to create a solution for the parking problem, and we have to make it illegal to use them on the pavement.” E-scooter companies aren’t thrilled either. “No one really has a fleet size that's large enough to be able to make long-term investment,” Lime’s Clarke says, calling the measure “imperfect.”
City officials agree with some of that criticism and say residents have also complained about having to download so many different e-scooter apps. There are plans to reduce the number of licensed operators to two or three when the legislation runs out in April 2022, according to Rune Gjøs, Oslo’s mobility director. But even if the current system is imperfect, there is evidence it has made the city safer. When the new rules came into effect on September 10, the numbers of reports about e-scooter injuries in the city’s casualty wards dropped dramatically, Gjøs says. Between August and September the number of people with e-scooter injuries in Oslo’s Emergency Ward was halved, falling from 301 to 143.
The crackdown has not been limited to Scandinavia. In November 2021, Paris introduced new rules demanding rented e-scooter speeds be capped at 6 mph in 700 areas of the city, after a pedestrian was hit and killed by an e-scooter in June. Brussels has also been debating stricter e-scooter rules and is expected to vote in early 2022 on special parking areas, speed limits, and fines for scooters cluttering the street after regular reports of accidents across Belgium. After at least six e-scooter deaths in the UK capital, London’s Royal Parks charity, which is in charge of some of the city’s largest green spaces, announced in August a ban on e-scooters due to safety concerns.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Back in the Nordics, e-scooter companies have yet to decide on a coordinated approach toward the new rules sweeping the region. When Helsinki introduced a ban on e-scooters between midnight and 5 am in September 2021, Voi's senior operations manager in Finland, Reetta Alastalo, told Yle News the company preferred the idea of “a long-term awareness-raising campaign.” Some have advocated instead for being allowed to use in-app nudges and disincentives to encourage different behavior. Helsinki was the first place Lime rolled out tests designed to identify whether a rider is drunk. But the company says it supports some regulation, because that offers stability; their scooters would be less likely to get thrown out of a city at short notice. “It allows us to make investments into cities. It allows us to hire staff on longer-term contracts,” says Clarke.
Other companies have been more aggressive in attempts to maintain their business. When Oslo first announced its rule changes, Tier, Voi, and Ryde tried—and failed—to block the decision in court. Only Ryde is still pursuing the case, according to Gjøs.
Despite the ongoing drama, there is a sense in Scandinavian capitals that e-scooters are something city officials want to encourage—just in a more controlled environment. In Stockholm, where councillors are in the process of cutting the number of e-scooter rental companies allowed in the city from eight to three; Helldén claims all this effort shows that the city is keen to keep scooters as part of the transport mix. “Otherwise we would have tried to abandon them,” the transport official says. “They are still a really smart type of transport. We know that [in Stockholm] there are 60,000 journeys a day. That's a lot.”
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!The Twitter wildfire watcher who tracks California’s blazesRobots won’t close the warehouse worker gap soonThe sneaky way TikTok connects you to real-life friendsAffordable automatic watches that feel luxeWhy can’t people teleport?👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones