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Electric scooters zip into traffic chaos in Latin America

[MEXICO CITY] Electric scooters promised to revolutionise transportation in Latin America's traffic-clogged, smog-choked cities, but critics say they have only added to the free-wheeling chaos.

Like metallic mushrooms sprouting overnight, electric scooters from ride share companies appeared by the thousands last year on streets and sidewalks from Bogota and Lima to Sao Paulo and Mexico City.

For around half a dollar, plus a per-minute charge of about 10 US cents, anyone with a smartphone and a bank card can unlock these scooters and zip silently through the pandemonium of Latin America's biggest cities - some of the world's most congested.

They then leave the mini-vehicles at their destination.

As an added bonus, "monopatines" - as they are known in Spanish - help cut down on the notorious pollution plaguing the region's mega-cities by giving commuters an electric alternative, advocates say.

But, as it did in Europe and the United States, the scooters' arrival has also sparked controversy - amplified, in the case of Latin America, by the sheer size of its cities and the anarchy on its roads.

Riding down sidewalks, up one-way streets and into accidents - at speeds of up to 40 kmh, typically with no helmets and little experience - scooter users have exacerbated the very chaos the new technology was supposed to alleviate, critics say.

Protests have erupted over the fact that riders tend to leave the vehicles in the middle of the sidewalk or even the street when they are finished - sometimes blocking doors, driveways, ramps for the disabled or the streets themselves.

"Part of the problem in this city is that nobody respects anything," said Oscar Barrio, 44, a scooter user in the trendy Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, a sprawling capital of 20 million people.

He himself makes an effort to exercise good scooter safety and etiquette, he hastened to add.

But the same cannot always be said of his fellow riders.

A Google search for "monopatin accidentes" - using Spanish - returns ample video evidence.

In March, a scooter user in Mexico City riding the wrong way up a one-way street was sent flying through the air by a car making a left turn.

A similar accident in February killed a 28-year-old rider in the Mexican capital's Zona Rosa neighborhood.

In Lima, Peru, a 63-year-old woman ended up with both arms broken when an electric scooter ran her over on the sidewalk last April.

And in Sao Paulo, Brazil, authorities have registered 125 accidents involving electric scooters from January to May.

With politicians slow to impose regulations, locals have started taking matters into their own hands.

In Mexico City, angry residents scraped off the QR codes that enable users to unlock the scooters, and immobilized others with strips of tape reading "attack vehicle neutralized."

Still, the scooter companies see Latin America as a natural place to expand.

The region is home to three of the five most gridlocked cities in the world, according to consulting firm Inrix - Bogota, Mexico City and Sao Paulo - and the resulting air pollution is an increasingly urgent concern.

Meanwhile, an enlarged middle class has growing access to cell phones and debit cards.

San Francisco-based startup Lime is set to launch service in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Lima this month.

Mexico City-based Grin is currently hiring nearly 70 people around the region, and has just teamed up with Brazilian company Yellow to expand their footprint.

The companies tend to respond with a common strategy when they face accusations of exacerbating traffic chaos: blame the cars.

There is something to that argument, some experts say.

"What's causing most (scooter) accidents is the unsafe road environment around them, the speeding (by cars), the lack of regulation of motor vehicles, the absence of safe infrastructure," said Ivan de la Lanza, of the World Resources Institute, an environmental group.


Latin American cities are starting to regulate scooters, albeit slowly.

Lima banned riding them on sidewalks.

Bogota required users to wear helmets, while Brazil imposed a speed limit of 6 kmh in pedestrian areas and 20 kmh in bike lanes.

Mexico City recently restricted scooters to bike lanes or the street, recommended the use of helmets, imposed taxes on operators and placed limits on the number of scooters each firm can have.

"We think (scooters) are a good thing, because they incentivize electric transportation ... And so the best thing to do was regulate them," said Fernanda Rivera, head of road safety for the Mexican capital.

But even fans admit there is a long way to go.

"Unfortunately, we need better manners," said Joaquin Ramos, a 33-year-old Mexico City engineer who earns spare cash collecting and recharging the scooters - about US$1.50 per vehicle.

"Sometimes people just leave them in the middle of the street."