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Business trends

E-scooter sharing services help people get around in Thailand

As the two-wheelers jostle for space, road safety is becoming an issue

Neuron Mobility's battery-powered scooters are an increasingly common site in front of Bangkok cafes and in wealthy residential districts.

BANGKOK -- The Thai capital is notorious for its traffic, but jammed roads leave an opening of sorts for electric scooter sharing services, which are catching on in Bangkok.

And while the zippy two-wheelers offer a handy alternative to cars or motorcycles for getting around the city, some people find them a bit scary to operate.

In May, Singapore-based startup Neuron Mobility launched an e-scooter service in Bangkok. Customers scan a QR code with a smartphone app to unlock the scooter and hop on. Riding the vehicles is easy: Step on the scooter, press down on the handle bar-mounted throttle and away you go. The scooters are nimble, with a top speed of 25 kph, though maintaining balance can be tricky at first.

The rental fee is 20 baht ($64 cents) per ride, plus a time charge of 3 baht per minute. An additional 50 baht lets riders drop off the scooter wherever they like. Neuron staff replace the batteries daily to ensure the scooters are fully charged.

Sit, 48, who works at cafe in Bangkok that installed an e-scooter docking station in July, said more people are using e-scooters every day. They must find them convenient, he said, because unlike cars, they can be parked anywhere.

Neuron also operates in Malaysia and Australia. Last year, Thai real estate developer Sansiri announced it was buying a stake in the company.

Neuron began offering service in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai in 2018. In May this year, it came to Bangkok. The plan is to deploy about 200 scooters in the city, mainly in high-end residential areas.

Bangkok is the eighth-most congested city in the world, according to Dutch map services company TomTom. E-scooters are convenient, as they can maneuver between cars -- which are often stuck in traffic. Motorcycle taxis, meanwhile, are quick but customers sometimes complain of price gouging and dangerous drivers.

Another factor likely to put more e-scooters on the streets is growing environmental awareness among the Thai public. Bangkok residents were vexed by heavy smog earlier this year.

E-scooters are appearing in Singapore, too. U.S. startup Lime, as well as Singapore-based competitors like Neuron and Telepod, are competing fiercely in the city-state. Ride-hailer Grab has also launched an e-scooter sharing service, GrabWheels, in Singapore and Indonesia.

Unlike in Singapore, however, roads in Thailand are often narrow and rough, with many ruts and potholes, and there are few bike lanes.

Most roads are not even suited to bicycles or motorbikes, let alone small-wheeled e-scooters. After a test ride, one 51-year-old woman said that the scooters are faster than they look -- and that she might find riding one on a public street a bit unnerving.

China's big bike-sharing startups, Ofo and Mobike, which partnered with a local retailer and a telecom company, respectively, to offer service in Thailand in 2017, were forced to pull out. Ofo withdrew last August, while Mobike left in early 2019.

E-scooters are easier to handle than bicycles, but the fledgling sharing services face speed bumps. One local company that had only been operating since March appears to gone out of business. Phone calls to the company's office earlier this month went unanswered.

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