Beating the Streets, Out and About in Groningen

The rise of shared e-scooters challenges municipalities for new regulations.

By Marcello Filibeck and Barbara Niemczyk

New forms of mobility are spreading in many cities around the world. To fight global warming and climate change, local governments are pursuing policies to reduce the use of private vehicles, promoting more sustainable alternatives like electric scooters and mopeds. However, this green wave often comes with high incentives and low regulations.

We are in Groningen, where over 60% of transport happens by bike. Here, the Municipality promotes alternative forms of mobility, including shared electric scooters. Two companies are operating in the city: Check and Felyx. They don’t share their numbers, but just a short walk in the city centre shows how popular this mode of transportation has become in recent years.

Available scooters in Groningen from two renting companies, Check (left) and Felyx (right).

DISTINCTIONS

Let’s give some definitions first. Dutch law makes a distinction between two types of scooters: snorfiets and bromfiets.

Snorfiets have a blue license plate and can travel at a maximum speed of 25 km/h. People must drive them on the bicycle lane and no helmet is required. Bromfiets have a yellow license plate and a maximum speed of 45 km/h. They can’t stay in the bicycle lane and the driver must wear a helmet. Shared electric scooters follow the snorfiets rules.

According to a report from Pointer, only twelve of the forty-one municipalities that offer shared scooters have established rules for renting and parking. Groningen is not one of them. Still, the number of scooters – snorfiets and bromfiets – in the city increased by 42% in the last decade (data from 2010-2021).

Number of snorfiets and bromfiets in Groningen.
Number of snorfiets and bromfiets in Groningen (2010-2021). Source: OIS Groningen

RESPONSIBILITY

Residents complain about the lack of rules, which often leads to scooters parked in private areas or blocking passages for disabled people. «When we launched the service in 2021, we received many pictures of badly parked scooters from residents,» Stijn Ringnalda, Mobility Policy Advisor at the Municipality of Groningen, told 9to5.

«We are quite satisfied with how things are going so far, and we do not see the necessity to change anything right now,» Ringnalda added. He explained that the situation is improving also thanks to the efforts made by the operators.

Indeed, companies are aware of the problem. In September 2021, Felyx introduced a new feature to prevent parking nuisance and encourage riders to park the e-scooter properly after use.

In addition, both Check and Felyx apps feature a “report wrongly parked scooter” function to limit destructive behaviours in users. But is this enough? Who is responsible for controlling the users? What if someone registers with a fake driving license?

The feature to report wrongly parked scooters on Check (left) and Felyx (right) apps.

Ringnalda said that the Municipality stays close in touch with the operators and evaluates the situation once a month. «We also have a short line over WhastApp with the City Managers to resolve pressing issues quickly,» he added.

However, Ringnalda clearly stated that the responsibility for bad behaviours during driving and parking rely on operators. «Each company has its own plan to handle these issues,» Ringnalda said, adding that the Municipality controls only the usage areas.

With the companies not willing to comment, we went into a personal investigation through the whole process of creating an account, renting, driving, and parking the scooters. Considering the current lack of local regulations, we relied on the general terms and conditions, which every user must accept when registering for the service.

REGISTERING

Both apps require a driver license’s verification, performed by an artificial intelligence algorithm. Check asks the user to upload a video; Felyx requires just a selfie picture. In both cases, the verification process is fast, and in a few minutes, the user can rent a scooter.

Check driver’s license verification screen.
Felyx driver’s license verification screen.

The ease of the registration process made us think about how we could get around the system. We tried to create an account on Felyx using identities with both fake and real people.

In the first case, we made a fake driving license on Photoshop using a picture of Michael Jackson both for the document and the selfie. The system rejected the upload, saying that the users’ selfie was not legit but apparently accepted the fake document.

The fake driving license we created with Photoshop.

In the second scenario, we asked twin sisters to verify a driving license that belongs to one of them, with a selfie of the other one. The Felyx app verification approved this process without any problems.

DRIVING AND PARKING

When using the scooters, users must comply with street rules. According to the Dutch regulations and companies’ Terms and Conditions, it is clear which road signs users of e-scooters must obey. However, there are no road signs indicating suitable parking places.

Regarding this matter, Ringnalda told 9to5 that it is «not wishful to prioritize public spaces for certain kind of vehicles.» The Municipality tends to favour a more flexible way of using public spaces.

It is possible to drive a scooter around every part of the city, but there are limits for parking areas. Users can’t park – and end their rent – in specific places of Groningen, such as the city centre or Noorderplantsoen.

The first test we did was to park in a legit area but in the wrong way. We parked a Check scooter between two underground containers, blocking access for the garbage collectors. We were able to end the rent without issues.

This scooter clearly blocks access to the garbage collectors, but the app allowed us to park it anyway.

This try demonstrated how easy it is to wrongly park scooters and still get the app’s approval for ending the ride. The General Terms and Conditions explicitly prohibit parking in private areas or in places not accessible to anyone at all times.

We wanted more. We removed the Check scooter from our bad parking place and swapped it with a Felyx one to continue our test.

We drove to Aweg 30, one of the University buildings with a private park for students’ bikes. We successfully ended the ride in the app with the scooter parked between two bike sheds. Such parking would make the scooter impossible to get to as the entrance to the complex closes at 6 pm. What is more, the app allowed us to leave the bike in the parking spot after 5:30 pm, just before the closing time of the Aweg Building and its parking place.

Trying to end the rent in Aweg 30 private parking.
The scooter successfully parked in a prohibited area.

We again reparked the scooter to a suitable location and headed back to the newsroom to discuss our findings. We decided to send a follow-up email to the companies, highlighting the flaws we experienced and asking for comments. As of 16th February, we did not reply from Check or Felyx representatives.

This screenshot was taken on 16th February.

While we were driving around the city, we noticed that we were not the only ones leaving the scooters in problematic areas. We found at least two examples in less than fifteen minutes. Perhaps the worst of them was the last one we saw: a Felyx scooter parked in front of a garage door, with a sticker explicitly indicating a non-parking zone.

The worst parked scooter we have seen.

Our experience shows that the controls over wrongly parked scooters still need many improvements despite the efforts. On 1st March, the Municipality will release a public report on shared mobility in Groningen that will not address possible solutions but will instead focus on describing the current situation.

Ringnalda told us that the report will feature three sections: statistics about scooters’ usage, a survey among users to look into how they use the service, and a part addressing problems and nuisances.

Scooters will keep playing a role in the Municipality mobility plans in the future. «We are considering switching from a “park anywhere” model to a system with fixed strategic parking areas around the city,» Ringnalda explained.

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