Something Borrowed, Something New: Electric scooters zip into Bangkok

Image: Coconuts Media
Image: Coconuts Media

You might have seen them zipping up, down and around Thonglor. People whisking by silently, clenching orange metal handlebars. I wanted to track these small-wheeled wonders to their source – someone said to look near the mango lady at the bottom of the road – but came up empty.

It wasn’t until this week that I got a name – Neuron – after a friend abandoned one in front of De Commune nightclub. It turned out there’s no rental shop, only a small app to download. Not long after, I was zooming up the road, part of a transportation experiment taking place in cities around the world

That’s right, electric scooters have arrived in Bangkok. The same personal transport tech hailed as either the scourge of the sidewalk or salvation of urban mobility has rolled into downtown in a quiet deployment to see how they are received. They appeared two weeks ago without fanfare in a zone roughly bounded by Sukhumvit and Petchaburi roads between BTS Phrom Phong and Phra Khanong.

Behind them is Neuron, a Singaporean startup set on fielding the zippy machines throughout Southeast Asia. In December, the three-year-old company announced it had raised the equivalent of THB117 million (US$3.7 million) to expand in the region and is now operating in the city-state, Kuala Lumpur and Chiang Mai.

But in Bangkok? A city paralyzed by heat and agonizing traffic, chaotic roads and crumbling sidewalks, where often the best and only option is careening through traffic on a motorcycle taxi? That Bangkok?

Bangkok totally delighted by makeover of Sukhumvit’s best sidewalk

Perhaps the capital city’s immobility is what makes it a ripe target for Neuron’s goal of “building a sustainable micro-mobility platform that works with cities to solve the needs of consumers looking for a fast, convenient, and affordable mode of transport,” in the words of CEO Zachary Wang.

With apologies to Wang, Neuron’s website boils it down to more human terms: “last-mile travel made fun.”

“It’s a big opportunity for us. A lot of people, a lot of people working there, and a high demand for getting around,” said Kanjanasuda “Fern” Onsaengkitkasem, a Neuron spokeswoman in Thailand.

Neuron rep Kanjanasuda “Fern” Onsaengkitkasem just happened to be camping the first scooter I tracked down using the app on Thursday. That or she's a stalker.
Neuron rep Kanjanasuda “Fern” Onsaengkitkasem just happened to be camping the first scooter I tracked down using the app on Thursday. That or she’s a stalker.

Fern said there are 60 to 70 scooters around Thonglor, with about 700 across metropolitan Bangkok. She said no one has been injured, though two people doing downhill on one scooter – a big no-no – did fall.

Bangkok thus far has no regulations for their use. Whereas some cities ban scooters from sidewalks, Neuron encourages riders in Bangkok to use them if possible.

“Sometimes you have to stop riding and walk it, then start riding again,” she said. “The areas we go to start operating, we try to look for an area that has bigger footpaths than other areas.”

So far, that’s meant Neuron scooters around Chulalongkorn University, between Rama I and Rama IV roads on the main campus and the Chula back sois over to Banthat Thong Road.

They can also be found in a few spots around On Nut/Phra Khanong, Mahidol University’s Salaya campus in western metro Bangkok, and the AIT/Science Park campus in the northern outskirts. Next time you’re spending all day at the Immigration Bureau, look for the dozen-or-so around the Government Complex in Chaeng Wattana.

First-Person Scooter

Taking one for a ride is incredibly easy.

Install the app (Droid/Fruit), attach a card, and it will fire up a map showing all nearby scooters, their battery levels and photos of their location – if their last riders were compliant enough to take one.

Scan the scooter’s QR code to turn it on for THB20 plus 3 baht per minute. That means 35 baht for a five-minute ride, not exactly competitive with the plentiful motorcycle taxis working most neighborhoods.

Neuron is hoping frequent users will buy unlimited-use subscriptions. It’s here the cost makes sense for those with high-mobility days. They provide unlimited trips all day (THB50), all week (THB229) or all month (THB599).

Squeeze the throttle and push off to start the motor – a safety precaution – and feel a rush of childish glee. Not fast enough? There’s a hidden second gear if you thumb the “Mode” button.

Though I’m of precisely average male height for my people, the handlebars felt a little low, and I had to stoop a bit to clench the brake right. I’d suggest practicing with the brake – go easy on it, as it delivers more shaky stopping power than one might expect.

A Neuron parking location in front of City Boy cafe in Soi Thonglor 4.
A Neuron parking location in front of City Boy cafe in Soi Thonglor 4.

Objects of Abuse

In other cities, where scooters clutter sidewalks and irritate pedestrians, they have become hated targets of retribution. In Los Angeles, they’ve been set on fire and drowned in the ocean. Environmentalists in Oakland, California, raised the alarm after a lake began filling up with them.

To avoid – or minimize – this, Neuron’s strategy is to sacrifice some of the pick-up-drop-off-anywhere convenience found elsewhere. To avoid the street becoming a wasteland – and possible graveyard – of discarded scooters, the company has designated several parking locations where they should be found and left.

Right now, there simply aren’t enough of those to go around, especially during a punishing heatwave that makes every unnecessary step a burden. Fern said Neuron is working to bring more online in the area.

Once they feel there are sufficient parking locations, Neuron will charge riders for leaving them elsewhere – and heftier fees for depositing them outside the designated service areas.

Still, she said the response in the Thonglor area has exceeded expectations, despite the company doing nothing yet to advertise it.

“We thought that if we [didn’t] do any promotion, people wouldn’t use it. But we’ve seen people using [them for] at least 200 trips per day,” she said.

Next month, Neuron plans to bring its scooters to the area around the Asok intersection and the Grand Palace area in the old quarter. It’s also looking at Silom and other campuses.

“We’re looking for spaces that have nice footpaths, and nice areas that have a lot of attractions for now,” Fern said.

Neuron says it factored road and sidewalk conditions into the scooters’ design to be safe for Southeast Asia.

“The wheels are pretty big, because we know the streets in these countries aren’t that great,” Fern said, adding that their extensive team of techs are checking all the scooters out daily and testing their batteries every couple weeks.

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