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Why is the UK so behind with e-scooters?

The UK is the last major European country where e-scooters are illegal. They have a strong presence in the major cities of Spain, France, Italy and elsewhere. In 2018, the first full year of operation of e-scooters in the United States, 38.5 million trips on shared e-scooters were made and millions of others on private e-scooters. The e-scooter revolution is already more popular than shared bike schemes.

In the UK the Highways Act 1835 and the Road Traffic Act 1988 mean that e-scooters are illegal to use and heavily regulated. They are considered as personal light electric vehicles – requiring insurance, technical standards, vehicle tax, licencing and registration. It is also illegal to use them in the same space as pedestrians and cyclists.

Legislation came into force on 4th July that allowed for e-scooter trials to take place in agreement with the Department for Transport (DfT), local authorities and providers.

Trials are underway in Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes and are set to continue in Cambridge, the West Midlands, Northampton, London and Liverpool and elsewhere.

The pilot schemes are the first step toward a change in legislation and will provide data on a range of operational and policy issues, including modal shifts, journey lengths, financial and safety.

There are of course concerns from the public and politicians over safety which dominates coverage of these vehicles. Safety issues and street obstructions caused by inappropriate parking, for example, are problematic for people with disabilities.

This ought to be resolved by having clear rules on issues such as parking and where and how fast they can be ridden. Some e-scooter providers have adapted their apps to address concerns, ensuring that users leave a photo showing that they’ve left the scooter in a correct space.

A study in the city of Portland, Oregon found that during the first year of use, 73% of e-scooters were parked correctly and noted that the issues of bad parking reduced over time as education and awareness of e-scooters increased.

In terms of user safety, e-scooters have the same injury rates as bikes – and research has shown this could be reduced further with clear rules and education. The issue in the UK is that privately used e-scooters appeared almost out of nowhere, illegally. Because there are no guidelines or laws in place, users ride them how they wish. Once legislation is enacted and there are more users – motorists, cyclists and others will have a better understanding of the rules and how they work and accidents are likely to decline as motorists adjust their behaviours. If research on modal shifts is correct, uptake in e-scooter usage reduces car usage and results in fewer car accidents on the road.

The environmental case for e-scooters is overwhelming. Whilst estimates vary, e-scooters reduce the amount of car usage (the DfT says 20%, providers say 30%). This figure is expected to increase to 50% by 2050, leading to a significant reduction in emissions and congestion.

E-scooters can also help encourage the use of public transport, and be used to connect train and tube stations. During COVID-19 e-scooters offer an innovative and green transport solution to keep people both mobile and safe, easing pressure on public transport at a time where it is limited.

A somewhat overlooked advantage that e-scooters bring to cities is that they improve social inclusion. Operators have the ability to try to encourage those on low incomes to use their services through pricing, discounts, ride packages and free unlocks.

There is a misconception that e-scooters will be used exclusively by city workers in London’s Zone 1, looking to travel from penthouses in Shoreditch to investment banks in the city. In reality, the lived experience from the US and Europe is that e-scooters can revolutionise transport deserts in outer boroughs, where public transport is limited and lower quality and the alternative of private cars is expensive. This gives the opportunity for people living in these communities to be more mobile, shortening travel times and opening up options for employment within realistic distance. On the flip side it means these areas are more accessible to others, giving increased physical access for people to spend across retail and leisure, thus increasing economic activity.

There are concerns that e-scooters will cause a modal shift away from active transport such as walking, but the trials will provide hard data for consideration. If the shift is away from long walked journeys, for example to bus stops or train stations, there is a benefit to the change because of productivity, connectivity and increased economic activity.

There is also a wider economic benefit to legalising e-scooter use in the UK. The e-scooter industry is worth billions and employs thousands of people worldwide. To my earlier point, it also helps people to spend money in local economies by reducing travel time and increasing access to high streets, shops and services.

The operational aspect of e-scooter providers also allows for a local employment opportunity as safety checks, repairs and battery charging which will be carried out by teams in local hubs. All of these people need depots to operate from.

By July 2021, the e-scooter trials will have come to an end and policy and decision makers will be in a position to decide the direction of travel with regard to legislation. The trials should provide the opportunity to iron out issues with both specific providers and the shared e-scooter sector as a whole – and also educate the public on what the devices are, and how they are used, rather than the government becoming onerous with regulation, red tape and legislation. It’s going to be an interesting year ahead.

Nudge Factory acts as the Secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Micromobility.

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