BUENOS AIRES -- Housed in a small storefront in the leafy Palermo Soho neighborhood, Leandro Brumatti and Cristián Moraco's new electric scooter rental company, The Green Scooter, is more than an eco-flavored tourist service. It's also a reflection of the collapsing state of the Argentine capital's transportation infrastructure.
Buenos Aires is not alone in its transportation problems. The world population has recently become more urban than rural, a trend especially visible in the developing world. As people crowd into unprepared cities with overwhelmed streets and public transportation, the need for agile, low impact vehicles has become more important. In this context, services like Brumatti and Moraco's are becoming a worldwide trend.
As with many entrepreneurial ventures, the idea for the Green Scooter came about as a way to solve a problem. On a vacation in Rio de Janeiro last summer, Brumatti felt unsatisfied with the transportation available. He yearned for a way to get around that offered the ease of a bike without the work, the economical nature of public transportation without the crowds and wait, and the lazy freedom of a car without the parking and expense.
"I felt that there had to be a better way to get around the city, something that wasn't as complicated as a car or as simple as a bike," says Brumatti, 37, whose deep voice and clear diction belies his day job as a voiceover and commercial narrator. "I said to my girlfriend, 'It's a pity that there aren't scooters for rent.'"
Scooters and other low-powered motorcycles have long been popular in cities from Rome to Hanoi. But until recently, Argentina was an empire of the car. It is the birthplace of Juan Manuel Fangio, who dominated early Formula One racing, and with its wide open plains and large car industry, the country is a driver's paradise.
That changed following the country's 2001/2 financial collapse, after which an economic boom allowed locals to buy a flood of new cars. The number of cars and trucks in Argentine exploded from some 6 million in 2001 to almost 10 million in 2010, crowding the streets of Buenos Aires. Scooters and motorcycles -- motos in Argentina -- became a necessary tool for getting around, and annual sales grew from 29,000 in 2002 to more than 700,000 in 2011.
Traffic wasn't the only motivation, however. Making getting around Buenos Aires even more difficult is the country's contentious labor relations: this year, there have been more than 20 days of subway strikes.
"In recent years, Buenos Aires has changed a lot. The government hasen't done the infrastructure projects needed to deal with the increase in cars. The transportation network has collapsed. And that's on a good day, when there are no strikes, no road blocks, no accidents. Which never happens," says Brumatti, surrounded by some of the 15 new 500 watt Lucky Lion scooters he and Moraco have bought.
Soon after deciding to launch a scooter rental business, Brumatti and Moraco settled on using electric scooters. Besides giving the company an ecologically friendly face, this offered several advantages specific to Buenos Aires.
For one thing, they move more slowly that a traditional gas scooter -- about 25 mph -- which is important in a country where the death per million vehicles rate is some six times that of the U.S. They're also easier to refill, as the combination of a real estate boom and government fuel price regulation has led many gas station owners to sell their stations to developers. There are about 3,900 stations today, compared to 6,200 in 2001.
Scooter rentals exist in many parts of the globe, but for now, Green Scooter has the Buenos Aires scooter rental market largely to itself. Worldwide, the electric scooter market is small but growing, as we've reported here. San Francisco has an electric scooter sharing service, while a Barcelona company rents electric scooters, and an Amsterdam company offers an electric scooter taxi service.
Beyond all the other issues, however, Brumatti says he is inspired by the same thing that thrills motorcycle and scooter riders everywhere: the joy of being both fast and free.
"The experience of riding a scooter at 10 p.m. on a summer night, past the National Library on Avenida Libertador [a major avenue in Buenos Aires] is nothing like being in a car, or on a bike," says Brumatti. "It's unique. It's a way to discover the city from another angle."
Green Scooter rents its vehicles for 190 pesos/day (about $40 at the official exchange rate), and the vehicles can travel about 30 miles between charges.
Photo of Buenos Aires traffic courtesy of Alex E. Proimos/Flickr