Scooters crowd the streets of Seoul, causing backlash

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Scooters crowd the streets of Seoul, causing backlash

Electric scooters are parked in front of exit 1 of Jamsil Station in southern Seoul. [PARK MIN-JE]

Electric scooters are parked in front of exit 1 of Jamsil Station in southern Seoul. [PARK MIN-JE]

What could go wrong in flooding a major metropolis with electric scooters?
 
A lot, apparently.  
 
Complaints are piling up at various government departments in and around Seoul as frustrated homeowners, pedestrians and drivers find the popular vehicles, also known as kickboards, parked in every conceivable inconvenient spot.
 
According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 16 companies are operating a total of 35,850 electric scooters in the city as of Aug. 31. The number of scooters doubled since May, when the total was 16,580.  
 
The pandemic is one driver of demand. Shunning buses and subways, Seoul residents have looked for alternatives — and for many, electric scooters fit the bill.  
 
Run by private companies, mostly start-ups, shared electric scooter services are similar to the shared bike service operated by Seoul Metropolitan Government. The main difference is that the bikes have to be returned to designated racks. Scooters can be left anywhere.
 
And everywhere they are left.
 
 
An electric scooter is parked at the center of a road in Songpa District, southern Seoul. [PARK MIN-JE]

An electric scooter is parked at the center of a road in Songpa District, southern Seoul. [PARK MIN-JE]

They are in front of restaurants, on foot paths, at crosswalks, in car parking spots and in the middle of busy markets. They have been spotted in the center of streets.
 
People trip over them and are forced to walk or drive around them as scooters take up space in locations where space is at a premium. At the very least, they are an eyesore.
 
The number of complaints relating to the use of electric scooters this year reached 1,951 as of end of July, according to data from the Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission. For full-year 2019, the number was 1,927, and in 2018, it was 511.
 
“We receive at least 10 complaints a day about electric scooters parked on sidewalks or at subway station exits where lots of people pass by,” an employee from Gangdong District Office’s transportation policy department said. “When we actually visit the location, the electric scooter is no longer there as it has already been taken by another user. It’s really difficult for us to regulate them.”  
 
Operators of scooter-sharing services are making efforts to tackle the backlash. Olulo, operator of Kickgoing, and PUMP, operator of Xing xing, established 24-hour-a-day hotlines for local district offices so that company employees can clear their scooters within two hours of a complaint.  
 
Some critics argue that foreign companies have recklessly increased the number of scooters in pursuit of revenue, to the point that it has become nearly impossible for them to respond to problems.  
 
 
 
The issue isn't just about the shared service providers.  
 
According to the Korea Transport Institute, a total of 481,427 electric scooters were imported from 2017 to Aug. 2019. Of them, some 50,000 are estimated to be operated by scooter-sharing services, which means that the rest are owned by individual riders.
 
“Companies limit the maximum speed of their scooters to 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] per hour and constantly tell users to follow the basic rules,” said Jung Mina, director of Korea Startup Forum. “It’s time individual riders who don’t keep order on the streets are educated as well.”  
 
The Seoul Metropolitan Government is in discussions with 16 electric scooter companies, including Kakao Mobility, Lime, Olulo and PUMP, to establish guidelines for electric scooter drop-off locations.  
 
One possibility is to agree on the types of places where scooters can be left, such as benches, telephone booths and lampposts, and to publish of a negative list of places where leaving them is forbidden, like in the middle of roads and sidewalks and at subway exits and building entrances.  
 
The government and electric scooter companies are planning to sign an agreement as soon as the Covid-19 situation stabilizes.  
 
“Based on guidelines made by Seoul Metropolitan Government, local governments are adjusting specific details with electric scooter companies,” said a spokeswoman for Seoul Metropolitan Government.  
 
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is also ramping up efforts to come up with a set of laws to define the legal status of “personal mobility” vehicles and their operators. With the amendments to Korea’s transport law, electric scooters will be able to run on bicycle roads from Dec. 10.
 
Under current law, operators of electric scooter-sharing services don’t need approval to start the business. All they need is to register with the National Tax Service.
 
Local mobility start-ups think the government’s moves have come too fast, and they worry about a replay of the Tada situation, where an innovative company was regulated to the point it was barely useful anymore and the benefits of the technology were lost.
 
“For people who don’t ride electric scooters, scooters are nothing more than pollution,” Kim Hyung-san, CEO of The Swing, a local electric scooter company, said. “It will take time for society to understand the business.”
 
The electric scooter-sharing industry must listen to the complaints, "rather than solely concentrating on operating a large number of scooters,” Kim added.
 
BY PARK MIN-JE, CHEA SARAH   [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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