Electric scooter companies are racing to take part in planned UK trials after the test window was brought forward to next month (from 2021) due to the pandemic, opening a window for greener, socially distant transport methods. Many E-scooter providers are already in talks with local authorities, but there are several practical and regulatory issues to be aware of, and we would do well to learn from other countries who introduced them early on.
As a recent LGIU briefing on active travel covers in greater depth, car usage is down in the UK while active transport methods such as cycling are higher than ever. However, in many countries where the lockdown measures are being lifted, car usage is returning to normal levels and in some places expected to be higher than ever before – China has seen a rush of people purchasing cars. Results from a survey by SYSTRA show that even after the lockdown the number of people using public transport in Britain’s cities could be 20% lower than normal. With the UK Prime Minister and many other world leaders urging people to avoid public transport where possible, we must be careful not to slip into a ‘carmaggedon’ as people look for socially distant ways to travel. The coronavirus pandemic is a serious health crisis, but let’s not forget the magnitude of our ongoing environmental health crisis – air pollution, responsible for the deaths of more than 28,000 people per year in the UK. The Government recently announced a £2bn package to improve cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, to include e-scooter trials. So, could e-scooters be a useful addition to a new transport mix for the UK as we try to reduce car reliance?
The legalisation of E-scooters
‘Micromobility’ refers to a range of small, lightweight devices operating at fairly low speeds, including electric scooters and electric bicycles, among others. As a fast, yet comparatively low-exertion form of transport in comparison to bicycles, E-scooters are especially useful for commuters and casual users who need to hop from A to B quickly. Crucially, they’re also a socially distant form of transport, and an emission-free one – at least they can be with the right regulation in place to ensure sustainability (more on that later). In the current climate, that slots them neatly into a ‘potential answer’ position for the question of how we will adapt travel to fit a covid or post-covid world while still maintaining the ‘green gains’ of lower emissions and air pollution that we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic. Interestingly, current research suggests that rather than replacing active forms of travel such as by bicycle or walking, trips taken by e-scooter often tend to replace car and public transport trips. This substitution effect with car trips makes them a useful, green addition for clearing up road congestion in cities.
Despite their popularity among commuters in large UK cities, electric scooters are currently illegal for use on public property, including roads and pavements. However, the UK Government has recently closed consultations aiming to fine-tune new, urgent legislation which will see trials of rental e-scooters begin soon – allowing the scooters to be brought in much more rapidly and in more areas than the initial plans of 2021. The changes to legislation are part of the ‘green restart of local transport’ in response to reduced public transport capacity during the pandemic. The conditions for the trial are as follows:
- Maximum speed will be capped at 12.5 mph
- Users required to be covered by a motor vehicle insurance policy, by their provider
- Users required to have a driving licence in some form, making the minimum age for use 16
- E-scooters will occupy the same road space as cycles and EAPCs. This means e-scooters would be allowed on the road (except motorways) and in cycle lanes and tracks.
- Helmets would be recommended but not mandatory, and the e-scooters do not need a license plate
The government has said that local areas will be able to host trials of rental e-scooters if they wish to, ensuring that local and national government requirements are met. These may include controls over the number of electric scooters allowed in the area, designated parking areas, arrangements regarding access to trip data, and vehicle hygiene requirements. Local authorities may work and direct with e-scooter rental companies to ensure these standards and controls are put in place. Glasgow and Birmingham are two cities with plans to roll out e-scooter trials imminently.
What do local authorities need to look out for?
Limit competition for coverage and affordability
E-scooter provision in less-dense cities and suburban areas can be fragile, as companies face higher costs from driving to collect the scooters alongside lower revenue due to sparse demand. The result is thin profit margins for operators, making the decision on whether to set up shop – or stay in an area – tenuous. In such scenarios, heavy-handed regulation of the market can cause providers to pull out. Yet simultaneously, E-scooters can be a fantastic addition to transport networks for those same areas, where buses may be less frequent and do not offer anything close to door-to-door service.
As David Zipper, urban mobility expert recommends, limiting provider permits can be one regulatory answer. In a recent panel, he explained that while restricting competition seems counter-intuitive, in the case of e-scooters it can actually result in lower prices for users and better coverage across the city, as operators may then find it profitable to expand into suburban areas and improve the size of the area users can ride within. As Katie Stevens, a senior director of government relations at Lime told Citylab, “In a suburban environment, we’d probably need to be the exclusive provider”. Lowering or scrapping per-scooter fees can also counter profitability issues for those areas and help expand service.
In more dense urban environments, limiting the number of providers to a few can still reduce operating costs significantly and keep supply consistent. For operators, knowing that they will be able to continue operating in a city safely and without competition forcing them out is worth something. In turn, they may be more likely to shoulder some investment into charging infrastructure or be willing to share useful data with local authorities.
Geofence – but avoid a patchwork
In a similar vein, geofencing can be a great way to stop users riding into particular busy pedestrianised areas. Utilising geofencing technology allows providers to cut power to the scooters when they are located in certain areas on a map – a useful tool to force regulation for stopping the scooters being disruptive. Geofences can also designate ‘no parking’ areas, where users are unable to end their trip in the area and are told they will face a charge if they do, stopping users from leaving their scooters in undesirable areas. However, regulators will need to be careful with picking various areas to fence off, as the GPS systems on the scooters can be ‘noisy’ making fencing small areas difficult. Not to mention, forcing users to navigate a patchwork of coverage adds onto journey times, increase costs, and reduce convenience.
In large cities such as London where the roads that e-scooters will use cross local authority areas, agreeing to a unified set of procedures and rules for the use, provision and collection of the scooters will be needed. Just as users will not know when they are crossing into a geofenced area with any ease, users will also not realise they are crossing boundaries.
Choose your provider carefully to uphold green standards
When it comes to environmental sustainability, e-scooter models and providers are not created equal. In recent history, the short lifespans and un-environmental waste of scooters has been well documented, and although the technology is improving all the time, bad practices surrounding the building, charging, transporting, and scrapping of scooters can make them less green than they appear. Although the fact that the majority of the UK’s electricity comes from fossil fuels is problematic, that is not what carries through to e-scooters. Instead, most of the carbon footprint comes from the materials used to build the scooters, and the vehicles collecting them every night. If providers engineer the scooters with new, more sustainable technologies and build them to last, then e-scooters become more environmentally viable. Equally, some providers use green vans to collect the e-scooters, offer services like booking in advance, and use longer-life batteries to reduce unnecessary moving around of the scooters – take note of what companies are offering.
Despite the huge environmental and social benefits e-scooters can bring to urban and suburban areas as another transport option, there is no doubt that e-scooters can present a regulatory headache for local authorities. Local authorities will need to be strict in some areas of regulation, for example in dealing with concerns over the dumping of scooters, cracking down on pavement-riding, and making sure collection and distribution is efficient and green. Equally, they will need to work with and support providers in other areas to ensure prices are affordable, and coverage extensive, so as not to exclude groups from access. As with any disruptive technology, the introduction of e-scooters other countries has proven controversial, and the UK is likely to be no different – e-scooters may remain divisive for a while. But the UK’s laggard approach to this form of micromobility has left us in a good position. We now have technological improvements and a wealth of research to call on, allowing problems that have raised eyebrows in the past in other countries to be dealt with before they crop up. The introduction of e-scooters in 2020 can be environmentally sound, technologically efficient, and easier to regulate thanks to learning from other cities’ mistakes. And now, with a new need for socially distant travel to accompany our need to solve air pollution and climate crises, what better time to at least give e-scooters a chance in the UK?