E-Scooters - The Great Debate
Are they the eco-friendly transport of choice for forward-thinking, achingly chic urbanites or the laughable yet dangerous playthings of over-grown children? Let’s find out more about the e-scooter and work out whether we love or hate them.
Can I Buy an E-Scooter And Ride it Wherever I Want?
In short, no. Whilst they are readily available to buy in the UK it is currently illegal to ride a privately owned e-scooter on public roads, pavements or cycle lanes in Britain. This is because they are classified as PLEVs (Personal Light Electric Vehicles) and are treated the same way as electric cars. This means they need an MOT certificate, road tax, licensing and must be constructed in a way that conforms to regulations. Given that it isn’t feasible to fit them with easily visible rear red lights, legal number plates or signalling ability, until recently the only place you could ride one was on private land with the owner’s permission. Failure to comply currently carries a £300 fine and up to six points on the offender’s licence.
Staying Socially Distant on an E-Scooter
When the UK's nationwide coronavirus lockdown was eased on July 4th 2020, and more people were encouraged to go back to work and get out and about, the rules around e-scooters were amended and it is now legal to ride a rental e-scooter on certain public roads in Britain (if you have bought one, it is still illegal to ride it while out and about, so don’t get too excited).
This has provided people with another alternative to crowding on to public transport, which can be done whilst following government guidelines on social distancing, but the prospect of sharing an e-scooter with strangers has put many people off hiring one, despite assurances from rental companies that their machines are thoroughly cleaned at the end of each day.
E-Scooter Rental Schemes in the UK
The Department for Transport is in the process of launching year-long trails of e-scooter rental schemes in a number of UK locations, including Middlesborough, the West Midlands, Portsmouth and Southampton. These are similar to those already underway in some of the world’s coolest cities, including Copenhagen, Paris and San Francisco, but it is a bit of a logistical nightmare to implement and many people are far from convinced that they are a good idea.
In order to hire an e-scooter, you need a driving licence (either full or provisional) and you can only ride it on roads within the designated trial sites. Venture outside these zones or dare to ride a privately owned e-scooter and you will find yourself outside UK law.
Are E-Scooters Safe?
It is proving tricky to legislate the use of e-scooters effectively, as they do not fit neatly into existing traffic laws. Even in the countries where it is legal to use them more freely, such as Germany and Austria, there are still issues around licence requirements, speed limits and signalling ability.
The relatively high speed at which e-scooters can travel (50kmph/30mph) and the lack of protection afforded by the exposed riding position means that there have been a number of fatal accidents involving e-scooters.
In July 2019, TV presenter Emily Hartridge was killed when she collided with a lorry whilst using an e-scooter in Battersea in London and it has been reported that 29 people have been killed in e-scooter crashes since 2018. Given the apparently stringent regulations around their use, this figure is rather high and suggests that there is a lot of work to be done around enforcing current guidelines, or working to make e-scooter use a safer transport alternative.
It is also necessary to adopt a clearer policy around insurance and e-scooter riders’ liability when it comes to injuries to third parties. E-scooters are currently treated in a similar manner to cars when it comes to third party injuries, which means that if an accident does occur, you may end up with some eye-watering bills to pay.
Staying Safe: What to Consider When Buying an E-Scooter
If you want to buy an e-scooter, make sure you purchase from a recognised retailer that offers a decent warranty and repairs. This should mean that you avoid second-rate versions and knockoffs of reputable, well-known brands such as Xiaomi.
When you make your purchase, make sure you know the deal with the brakes, as there is no standard brake construction for e-scooters. Some have electric brakes, others disc brakes or foot brakes. Foot brakes are difficult to get the hang of, as you have to step on the scooter’s rear mudguard to stop. Disc brakes require maintenance and need to be replaced when they wear out and electric brakes are not as effective at stopping.
Make sure you are also au fait with the tyres and lights on the scooter you want to buy. Large, air-filled tyres offer the most comfortable ride, but make sure you use puncture protection fluid, as changing a tyre on the go is not easy on most e-scooters. Opt for solid tyres and decent suspension if you don’t want the headache of punctures.
Some e-scooters only come with rear lights and reflectors and need to be supplemented with lights designed for bikes if they are to be ridden more safely. We know it’s not legal, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping some people taking their e-scooters out on the road. If you do venture out, maximise your visibility on the by investing in high-viz and reflective clothing - to give drivers the best possible chance of seeing you - and make sure you wear a helmet. This will probably not save your life if a lorry hits you, but it will prevent the worst injuries from minor accidents.
Which Organisations Back E-Scooters?
The biggest supporter of e-scooters in the UK at the moment appears to be the UK government, which is putting its money where its mouth is by implementing trial rental schemes throughout the country. The beginning of 2020 was a difficult time for e-scooter rental companies, such as Voi, Lime and Bird, as lockdown saw demand for their service fall dramatically worldwide. The post-lockdown commitment from the UK government to introduce viable alternatives to street-clogging cars or packed public transport is not only encouraging in the short term as we battle virus transmission, but also suggests that we may be able to introduce more sustainable and eco-friendly transport alternatives to our roads in the long term.
Charities and action groups that promote safer environments for people using more sustainable and eco-friendly transport options to motor vehicles are welcoming the government commitment to trial alternatives. The London Cycle Campaign would like to see e-scooters legalised and users encouraged to travel on cycle lanes where possible, rather than on pavements.
Are E-Scooters the Next Big Thing in Micromobility?
Companies such as Lime, which operates the e-scooter trial in Milton Keynes, are keen to see the schemes go from a novelty to a serious urban transport option, becoming permanent fixtures of our city centres, as they are elsewhere in the world. In order for this to happen, UK laws around e-scooters will need to be relaxed so that they align with those of countries that have these schemes in place permanently. It is legal to ride privately owned e-scooters in public in Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria, though each country has its own guidelines and restrictions in place to try and keep both riders and bystanders safe.
We may also be putting off some e-scooter rental companies from pitching for some of our city contracts, thanks to the uncertainty of life after the Brexit transition period and our international reputation for what we might like to call ‘being a bit naughty’ and what others call ‘antisocial behaviour’. If you are looking for evidence of this, look no further that the cautionary tale of the failed Manchester Mobike bike share scheme. Vandals and thieves destroyed ten per cent of the Mobike fleet over the summer of 2018 and the firm withdrew its operation from the city soon afterwards. The best way to make bike and scooter sharing schemes as efficient and eco-friendly as possible is to ask renters to do some of the work themselves (such as swapping depleted batteries for fully charged ones) but the UK’s reputation for antisocial behaviour may be preventing us from attracting the most effective services that are enjoyed elsewhere in the world.
How Eco-Friendly Are E-Scooters?
Jumping on a hired e-scooter and using it to get from A to B is a more eco-friendly journey than jumping in a taxi or driving a private car. However, a study at North Carolina State University in 2019 found that, if you consider the environmental impact of the entire life cycle of an e-scooter from manufacture to collecting, charging, and redistributing scooters as part of a dockless service, they are less eco-friendly than they seem.
The study’s findings showed that an e-scooter journey produces 50% less in emissions than the same trip in a car. However, on a high traffic route it is actually more eco-friendly to take a diesel-powered bus use an e-scooter. Another interesting point that the study brought to light was that e-scooter journeys do not just replace car journeys. A survey of e-scooter users in North Carolina revealed the following:
- 49% of riders would have biked or walked,
- 34% would have used a car
- 11% would have taken a bus
- 7% wouldn’t have taken the trip at all
Add to this the negative environmental impact of manufacturing the scooters in the first place and the resources needed to collect rental models and return them to the depot for charging each day, and you are left with the sad realisation that they are not the environmental blessing you may have hoped they were.
Some of the companies that run e-scooter hire programmes are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint by using e-cargo bikes rather than vans to service their networks and by using scooters with swappable batteries (rather than needing to transport entire scooters for recharging). However, there is a lot of work to do to make e-scooter travel live up to its hype and much of this has to do with manufacturing longer-lasting e-scooters that have longer to earn their keep in terms of off-setting the carbon footprint of their production.
Having looked at the evidence available, it is hard not to feel that those of us who skip off to the nearest e-scooter rental scheme and start using it to explore the city are part of a big experiment that is probably destined to have a few bumps in the road before things start running smoothly. Getting the hang of riding an e-scooter is just the beginning. Other road users need to get the hang of navigating them and local and national governments need to master legislating how and where they should be used. The companies that run the rental schemes and the manufacturers of the e-scooters themselves need to find the safest, most sustainable ways to make and run them. It all feels very uncharted, but with a bit of luck, due caution and careful planning, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that they could be part of our travel infrastructure before too long.
In short, we neither love nor hate them; we are still on the fence, hoping for the Sandy-style makeover at the end of the movie that will seal the deal and make us fall for them.
 Alison Griswold 07.02.20 At least 29 people have died in electric scooter crashes since 2018, viewed on 18.09.20, https://qz.com/1793164/at-least-29-people-have-died-in-electric-scooter-crashes/
 Helen Pidd, 05.09.18, Mobike pulls out of Manchester citing thefts and vandalism, viewed on 15.09.20, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/sep/05/theft-and-vandalism-drive-mobike-out-of-manchester