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Are e-scooters the future of city travel?

A long-awaited rental e-scooter trial starts in London today. Will the controversial vehicles change travel for the better?

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When 42-year-old Michael* hopped off his electric scooter to talk, he was, he said, “embarrassed that at my age I’m even on one”. He was riding home through a south-London park from his work as a boxing instructor. The vehicle, he said, didn’t belong to him – it was his 12-year-old niece’s, who had lent it to him because of an injury that had prevented him from running or cycling to work. A journey that would have taken him 30 minutes to run took 15 by e-scooter, and when he was on the road – he never rode it on the pavement, he said – the scooter could go up to 20mph. “I first used it a week ago and I was amazed at how much fun it is. I wouldn’t buy one for myself. I’m more of a bike person. But they’re easy to use – and they’re fast.”

Michael is just one of many in the UK to adopt, however reluctantly, this new and controversial form of transport. If you live in a major city, you will likely have noticed a huge increase in the number of people zipping around on electric scooters over the last year, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic put many people off using public transport. Less than a year ago, it was illegal to ride any kind of e-scooter on public land. The use of privately owned e-scooters remains prohibited across the country – though they are widely available to buy – but as of today (Monday 7 June), London becomes one of several dozen English cities offering legal e-scooters to rent for the first time.

Michael used to be “totally against” e-scooters, he admitted, because of how many teenagers he had seen riding them on pavements in the way of pedestrians, “but it just depends on how you use them”. Those who are pro e-scooters emphasise their ease of use and their environmental benefits – not to mention how the vehicles are a “fun” way to commute to work or meet up with friends. But the anti-social behaviour associated with them, combined with concerns over how to safely introduce a new type of motor vehicle on to already busy streets, means their presence is often seen as an “invasion”

Many of the rental trials that launched in cities such as Norwich, Cambridge and Greater Manchester over the last year (there are not yet any trials in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) are due to be extended beyond their initial 12-month stint, as local councils and the Department for Transport continue to collect data on the scooters’ impact on public space, motor traffic and road safety before considering a change in primary legislation that would make rental schemes permanent. According to data from micromobility publication Zag, there are currently more than 11,000 shared e-scooters on the roads. A spokesperson from the DfT told the New Statesman there have so far been approximately three million trips on rental e-scooters. Add to this the countless numbers of unregulated private scooters on UK streets, and the impact of the vehicles on our cities is impossible to ignore. Are e-scooters set to become a mainstay of metropolitan life?

***

The pandemic accelerated the launch of regional e-scooter trials as it became clear that there was a need for a transport option that allowed for social distancing while being environmentally friendly. (Transport is the biggest source of noise and air pollution in the UK.) 

“As people come back into cities again in a way they feel is safe, there is going to be a behavioural change. People might find it difficult or uncomfortable to get mass public transport as they used to,” said Alan Clarke, director of policy and government affairs at Lime, a San Francisco-based firm that, following e-scooter launches in Milton Keynes, Salford and Rochdale, operates in London  from today alongside the brands Tier and Dott. (Lime’s e-bikes have been available to hire in London since December 2018.) The brands will operate vehicles in parts of central, south and west London as part of a 12-month trial scheme available to anyone aged 18 or over with a full or provisional driver’s licence.

People who would usually have taken a bus or a train may now, since the pandemic, feel safer in their own car. But, Clarke said, “all that’s going to result in is worse air quality, worse pollution, more concerns over parking and more expensive travel. We’re asking, can e-scooters replace those sorts of journeys that people might otherwise take in their own car, or even a mini cab or taxi? Because there is a negative impact of every journey made by a combustion vehicle within a city. It affects air quality, and that air quality, in cities like London, is killing people. There’s no two ways about that.”

[see also: “It’s our Brexit”: Will low traffic neighbourhoods affect the local election results?]

E-scooter operators and the local councils who are supporting the trials primarily focus on the transport method’s environmental benefits. It helps that the pandemic recalibrated many people’s understanding of the kind of world they want to live in, and proved that individuals could change long-held habits. “Covid has driven the green agenda,” said Charlotte Bailey, director of operations at Bird, which, pre-pandemic, ran an e-scooter scheme for workers commuting between Stratford station, east London, and the tech campus Here East in London’s Olympic Park. (Though publicly accessible, the park is privately managed by the London Legacy Development Corporation, and so e-scooter use was permitted there before last year.) “We’ve seen cities invest during this time in cycle lanes and in pedestrianised areas. Everyone has felt the benefits of having fewer cars on the road.”

The e-scooter as a green initiative is the logical next step for cities that have, for a long time, promoted walking and cycling as sustainable methods of travel, said Shoaib Mohammad, the assistant director for technical services at Salford City Council. The Salford trial started in October 2020, and between then and April this year, 16,000 individuals used the scooters more than 36,000 times, riding a total of 51,000 miles. As with all operators running trials across the country, users download a smartphone app through which they pay for a scooter – typically an “unlock” fee plus a standard rate per minute – and map their route. 

Following the UK’s recovery from Covid-19, there will be a push to get people using public transport again, and e-scooters can also aid that. “Typically, one of the major reasons people don’t take public transport is the first and last mile connectivity problem,” said Clarke. “If you live a mile away from your nearest train station or bus stop, how are you getting from that place to your front door? Most people, sadly, would say that distance is too far or takes too long to walk, or maybe it’s winter and the weather isn’t great. Having an e-scooter to link up that last part of the journey can help people view public transport as a viable option.” 

Representatives from both Bird and Lime noted the inclusivity of e-scooters as compared to bikes, which many see as a transport mode dominated by athletic, younger men. “We tend to see a larger female percentage than you would typically see on bikes,” said Bailey. “You are less likely to get hot and sweaty on a scooter than on a bike, which means you open yourself up to a different customer group.” Clarke at Lime also reported a “more even gender split on e-scooters than on e-bikes”, as well as a more balanced age profile. “In cities like London, people have an in-built view already of whether or not they’re somebody who is a cyclist.” As e-scooters are a more unfamiliar site, such stereotypes may not yet exist in the minds of future riders.  

***

Michael was cruising down the path of a busy park on a sunny afternoon, earphones in, when he stopped to talk. As a cyclist, he feels confident using the road, so feels “safe” on the scooter, he said, “but not as safe as I do when I’m on a bike”. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and, though he said he always wears one to cycle, he hadn’t considered putting one on for his journey home. “To be honest I’m not sure why I’m not wearing one. You don’t really see people wearing them on scooters, so I just hadn’t put two and two together.”

The e-scooter was convenient for Michael, but not a permanent fixture. Though he said he wouldn’t buy one for himself, he could be tempted to rent one occasionally. It could be a “cute” way to spend a day in central London with a partner, he said. “If I was running late for something and there was one there, I’d rent it.” But the trial could come with downsides too. “I guess we’re gonna be seeing a lot more teenagers on the pavement,” he said, laughing.

Michael was aware that riding a private scooter on public land is illegal, but was undeterred: “Last week I rode straight past the police. They looked me dead in the face and they didn’t blink an eyelid.” In a statement, a spokesperson for the DfT said “a range of motoring offences apply to those riding e-scooters illegally”.

Insurance cannot be bought for a private e-scooter, and no regulation exists for them, meaning their quality and safety features vary wildly. In comparison, the Lime scooters available for use in London are the operator’s latest “safest possible model”, said Clarke, with a “really safe stopping distance”. All e-scooters approved for rental in the UK must adhere to stability standards, and be fitted with dual brakes, lights and a bell. “Anyone who sees one of our scooters alongside a private scooter is going to notice the difference immediately. They are very different vehicles with very different design standards.”

Yet rental e-scooters do not come without safety hazards – even when they’re parked. Residents in cities such as Los Angeles, where e-scooters were introduced in 2018, have complained about the vehicles being strewn across pavements, blocking walkways. In California, environmentalists have grown concerned over the number of e-scooters found dumped in rivers and lakes. In the UK, problems so far have more regularly involved where the scooters have been ridden and by whom: a pilot launch in Hartlepool was abandoned last August following “widespread misuse” of the hire vehicles, including teenagers riding down a 70mph dual carriageway and several “near-misses” involving elderly customers when underage users rode inside shopping centres. Last September, Coventry City Council paused its trial five days into the scheme because of safety concerns after some e-scooter users had reportedly been riding in pedestrianised areas. 

Such “nuisances”, said Clarke, were to be expected early on in the trials. One benefit of the London trial coming so late is that the operators could foresee these issues and work to prevent them. “Now, operators know to broach it in a way that’s more sustainable. Generally, operators and governments have looked to grow schemes slowly so that the community gets used to them.” In Salford, Mohammad said they had not had “anywhere near the number of issues” they had been expecting regarding anti-social behaviour connected to the use of e-scooters. 

Helmets are recommended for use, but are not enforced. Lime offers free helmets for customers who complete an optional online “driving school”, developed with the AA. Its app reminds users about how to ride and park safely. “E-scooter operators have a responsibility for that education,” said Bailey at Bird.

As for teenagers riding on pavements, Clarke said that Lime’s scooters use geo-fencing technology that allows the operator to identify users who regularly abuse the rules. Such users can have more in-app training sessions pushed on to them, or, if they’re serial offenders, may find themselves blocked altogether. But, he emphasised, for the most part, people ride on the pavement because they don’t feel safe on the road – perhaps they’re on a busy road without a cycle lane, or are approaching a particularly dangerous roundabout. “It’s also a question about cities’ design, and making sure we’ve got adequate space for people who don’t want to drive or be in a motor vehicle.” Such reorganisation of the infrastructure of UK cities will be a much longer term project.

That London is such a busy city with complex road layouts is the reason rental e-scooters have arrived relatively late to it. As such, the capital – and the rest of the UK, which as a whole is significantly behind other countries in its adoption of e-scooters – has a huge amount of data from previous trials and is in the best possible position to launch a safe trial that is, Clarke said, “sympathetic” to other road users. 

“Anyone who’s using an e-bike or an e-scooter, using a regular bike or walking, is part of the solution rather than the problem. We need to make sure that there is adequate space and an adequate environment for people making that positive option to feel safe when they do so.”

*Names have been changed. 

[see also: The making of Anne Hidalgo]

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s assistant culture editor.