The e-scooters: road menace or saviour of the commute
The e-scooters: road menace or saviour of the commute?
Standing upright, you glide, ghostlike, along the street. You have no emissions. You are alone, outside, unlikely to catch anything or pass anything on. You are no burden to the public transport system, nor do you contribute much to congestion. You take up little space.
Now you join a busier road, one with buses. Perhaps you feel small, vulnerable. But when the traffic bunches up and stops, you can pass. Ha! This is the future of urban travel, isn’t it? Make that the present: it is here, you are here, going somewhere else quickly, with a smile. You are also breaking the law.
It may be surprising, given the number around, but privately owned electric scooters cannot be ridden legally on the road or on pavements in the UK (for now, at least: a consultation by parliament’s transport committee said they could help cut car journeys and recommended legalisation). That is why Federico does not want me to use his real name.
A 45-year-old investment manager at a hedge fund, Federico has a short commute in London, plus he goes to meetings across the city. He used to cycle, but it was tiring, he would arrive sweaty and he could not take his bike into meetings. The e-scooter which he rides on the road and cycle paths, always wearing a helmet – has been a gamechanger. “I stopped taking the tube, taxis and Ubers,” he says. “I could go anywhere and take it into the meeting room. It saves me time and money, it makes me more ecological and it is a tremendous amount of fun.”
At weekends, he rides to the supermarket. He often takes one of his three kids – aged eight to 10 – out on the e-scooter, too. It does not compromise stability, he says: “It’s a nice way of moving around London. It also gives them the appetite not to drive cars.”
Federico – who is from Italy, where private e-scooters are legal, as they are in most of Europe and much of the US – thinks the government is being timid and luddite as well as sending out mixed messages. Year-long trials of e-scooter rental schemes, like those in Paris, Copenhagen and loads of other European cities, are under way in places including Middlesbrough, Liverpool and Milton Keynes and will begin soon in Salford, Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire and elsewhere. But the only place where you are legally allowed to use your own e-scooter is on private land with permission from the landowner. You can buy one in a shop (for anything between £150 and £1,500), but you are not allowed to ride it home. It makes no sense, says Federico. “The most dangerous drivers are those who rent, because they’re often tourists or occasional riders. The safest drivers are those who own them.”
He says e-scooters, used responsibly, are no more dangerous than bicycles and have broader appeal. Not everyone can ride a bike – people with mobility issues, for example. “Anyone can ride a scooter – it’s more democratic than a bicycle.”
Democracy on wheels may be, but he gets shouted at by taxi drivers and told he should not be on the road. Maybe hansom cab drivers shouted at early cyclists, back in the day. Federico has been stopped by the police a couple of times; although he could have been fined and given points on his driving licence, no action was taken.
The growing international trend, alongside people steering clear of public transport during the pandemic, was good for e-scooter sales in summer. The Bicycle Association estimates that there are about 200,000 in the country. Halfords, the biggest retailer of them, has seen sales of e-mobility products, including e-scooters and e-bikes, increase by more than 230% since April.
The legality issue seems to be a touchy one; no one at Halfords would be interviewed, although the company did supply written answers to my emailed questions. “Our research has found that many want the UK laws to catch up with the rest of the world … While e-scooters cannot legally be ridden on public roads, they can be ridden on private roads and are enjoyed by many in this way.” Luckily, we all live in stately homes with long drives to scoot up and down.
Halfords’ response continues: “We welcome the news of the government announcing the fast-tracked e-scooter rental trials … These are a way for the government to monitor how consumers respond to riding e-scooters on public roads and, with this now in motion, we think it will go some way to setting a legal and regulatory framework that means they can be safely and lawfully used on our roads.”
Regarding the rental trials, Steve Pyer, the UK general manager of Spin – which runs the Milton Keynes scheme and is owned by Ford – tells me that 3,000 people have signed up and taken 10,000 rides since the scheme started in August. “Milton Keynes is particularly suited to scooters – it’s a new town, so there’s plenty of space.”
To rent one, you need to be 18 or older and have a provisional licence, which you scan using an app. A ride costs 25p a minute. You are insured, which you are not on a private e-scooter. Julian Chamberlayne, of the law firm Stewarts, says it should be possible to insure private e-scooters, though. “The current trials treat e-scooters as motor vehicles and it would make sense to continue to do so. That includes compulsory insurance, the cost of which need not be high. It could be a simple add-on to household or existing motor insurance.”
In Coventry, a scheme operated by the Swedish firm Voi was paused after just five days because of people riding in pedestrianised areas. “I was absolutely shocked to see riders going on the pavement, whizzing around, going the wrong way, scooters discarded all over the city centre,” said Sarah Gayton, a campaigner for the National Federation of the Blind. She would like to see e-scooters “disappear from the UK”.
She is not the only one. David Davies, the executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (Pacts) – and not the MP for Monmouth – questions how wonderful and beneficial e-scooters are. “I think there is a lot of greenwash attached to them, saying they reduce car journeys, often citing cities in the US where there is no alternative to the car. European cities have public transport facilities; shops are more local. Fundamentally, the trips on e-scooters come from walking and to a lesser extent cycling and public transport.”
Pacts also has serious concerns about their safety. Davies does not agree with Federico that they are equivalent to a bicycle. “They are significantly more risky, because the rider is standing upright on very small wheels – typically 8in, compared with a 27in bicycle wheel. Usually, the rider isn’t wearing a helmet; they get pitched forward, and they tend to have nasty facial injuries.”
The TV presenter Emily Hartridge last year became the first e-scooter rider to die when she collided with a lorry at a roundabout in London. Davies says e-scooters are a risk to pedestrians, too; he mentions a woman who was recently knocked into a canal in London by an e-scooter rider who did not even stop. It’s because of such abuses that one US company is promoting e-scooters that will turn themselves off as soon as they stray into unauthorised areas.
Most riders are young men, Davies says. My brief foray into e-scootering does nothing to suggest that he is wrong. (Halfords has not done a gender breakdown, but it says 47% of its e-scooter customers are under 35.) I post on Nextdoor, the neighbourhood social network, to ask if anyone nearby has an e-scooter I can have a go on. James Khan replies; he has just imported a bunch from China, which he is going to sell. We meet in the park and he has a couple with him, one worth £500 and a more powerful one with a seat, which he is going to sell for £750. “They’re green,” he says. “People don’t want to go on public transport because of the pandemic; we just saw it as an opportunity.” Khan agrees that his main market is going to be young men.
We are soon joined by one, e-scootering through the park. He is 18 and does not want to give his name, but he says he uses his e-scooter to get around. He used to ride it to college, but not any more; too many were being stolen. He is interested in the seat on James’s; they talk spec, range and speed. Another rider of a similar age shows up to compare e-scooters. None of them are wearing a helmet.
Make that none of us, because it is my turn now, first on the path (also not allowed, although there is no one walking on it), then on the road. It is great – quick, easy, clean and, as Federico said, a tremendous amount of fun. I pass a couple more e-scooters on the pavement – young men, late teens or early 20s, probably not hedge fund managers. One of them does not appreciate being overtaken, rides off the kerb on to the road, then screams – well, whines – past me, triumphantly. I am going at 15 mph; he is doing at least double that.
Then, at the T-junction, he pulls out without looking properly. A car screeches to a halt, the e-scooter rider swerves, wobbles, stays on – just – and continues. The car driver honks and shouts after him – you can imagine what.
I think it is safe to say my 10-minute inaugural ride has taken in most of the concerns surrounding e-scooters.