The ascent of the electric scooter in Latin America skids for the first death in Mexico

Encouraged by the success, the companies have expanded to other cities in the country such as Guadalajara and Monterrey, the second and third most populated, respectively.

The ascent of the electric scooter in Latin America skids for the first death in Mexico
Photo by Okai Vehicles / Unsplash

The skateboard of Sergio Paredes goes like a rocket in rush hour. Like every morning, he got off the subway and mounted one of these vehicles to make the last couple of kilometers to his place of work on Paseo de la Reforma, the great avenue in the center of Mexico City. His skate devil, as he is known in Mexico, reaches 14 kilometers per hour, more than the average speed of cars in peak hours in the capital. When braking at a red traffic light, his leather shoes have slipped. It has not come to fall, but almost. "It goes very fast," says Paredes, without a helmet.

And fast has been the ascent of the electric scooter in Latin America. Six months of honeymoon, thanks to the blessing of users like Paredes, who have seen in these vehicles an ideal transportation alternative, despite being more expensive than public transport, the journey costs a minimum of 15 pesos, less than one dollar, compared to five meters. Vertigo growth rates, millions of investment rounds, and favorable legal gaps have marked the expansion of electric scooter companies in several countries of the continent. But the rise of the scooter begins to find resistance from neighbors and authorities. To this is added the death of a user, hit by a taxi early Sunday morning in Mexico City. A fatal accident, the first in Mexico, has alerted the entire sector.

A Grin, a Mexican skateboard rental company that launched operations in July, has taken the accident on the crest of the wave. In October, they achieved 45 million dollars in an investment round, one of the highest figures ever raised by a national startup to finance its growth. They have just reached a million trips and signed an alliance with the Brazilian Yellow. Together they bring a fleet of 135,000 vehicles, including bikes and skateboards, to six Latin American countries. It is a giant of the so-called "sustainable mobility". On a business trip in Sao Paulo, in Brazil, Beriana Mendoza, director of communication at Grin, has been on the phone all day. "It's not our scooter," he says about the accident. "We make a great effort to explain the basic safety rules." Although, qualifies, the user "may not follow".

The accident vehicle belonged to Lime, a company of American origin that disembarked in October in Mexico City, a paradigm of the big city saturated by traffic and in need of new forms of mobility. Over 11 million cars circulate through its metropolitan area. , eight more than in 2004, according to data from the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. Its rapid development is similar to that of Grin. In the Mexican capital, they have achieved growth rates of over 10% per week in users. The shortage of gasoline, which left dozens of gas stations in the Mexican capital without fuel in early January, reinforced the trend.

Encouraged by the success, the companies have expanded to other cities in the country such as Guadalajara and Monterrey, the second and third most populated, respectively, and have leaped South America. In November, Lime launched operations in Chile. In Colombia and Brazil, they are about to open. "Latin America has the ideal combination: friendly climate, very dense cities, and a lot of smartphone adoption," said Alexander Wieland, Lime general manager for the region, before the accident. "We knew it was going to be a boom."

The boom has been fueled by a legal vacuum. As a rule, the rapid emergence of electric scooters in Latin American cities has caught local authorities off guard. "Sometimes they start to operate before there are regulations," says Bernardo Baranda, director for Latin America at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (IPTD), a think tank dedicated to mobility. "There is not yet a standard model." In this sense, Baranda points out two extremes: cities that do not regulate at all and others that do so too strictly.

Mexico City seeks a middle ground between the freeway and the front wall. Two days before the accident this Sunday, the capital government published some ordinances that limit the speed to 20 kilometers per hour, the same speed allowed for hybrid bicycles, and establish parking areas. This last aspect is key: being able to park the skateboard at will, in the place that best suits the user, is one of the main attractions of this means of transport. The Secretary of Mobility, Andrés Lajous, stresses the importance of limiting the current "hyper flexibility". "People who complain, and complain with reason, say they block the pedestrian crossing," he explains. The sector has 45 days of adaptation until the permanent rules come into operation. Faced with criticism, some companies have moved ahead and created their parking areas.

The new regulations, which have raised concerns in the sector, also force companies to offer insurance for users. Most already have policies, but coverage varies. Some only cover damages to third parties and others also include the hospital expenses of the injured party. "What everybody worries about is security," Wieland admits. The companies are committed to "educate" on how to use the skate. Among the rules of good operation is the use of a helmet, but until now it is the responsibility of the user to wear his. In fact, in the streets of the capital, it is common to see users without accessories, walking on the sidewalk and in the opposite direction, regardless of the company they use.

The agenda of Grin and Lime for the coming months is full of launches in new cities. In the places where they are already operating, they seek to consolidate the territory conquered by the car. But the future of the sector is open. "It's early to say if it's going to be just a fad," says Baranda, of IPTD. It remains to be seen if the electric skateboard continues its bright rise or ends in a ditch.