13 Jul 2020

The UK is abuzz with the sound of electric scooters – well, figuratively that is; but with trials brought forward and expanded to cover any willing authority in the UK, that unique low-carbon whine could soon be coming to a street near you.

Ginger has been quick off the mark, announcing a partnership with the Tees Valley Combined Authority a day before the change in law that permitted this unique experiment. One can be assured that larger, more established players such as Lime, Bird and Voi, already well-loved on the continent, have exciting plans underway behind the scenes and will be hitting the streets before long.

Despite its newness on these shores, however, there are operators who are already seeking to innovate and disrupt – take for example TIER Mobility, which tackles two of the big fears about the new transport option in one fell swoop. Already distinctive for offering an integrated helmet on its vehicles, addressing a key safety concern, this summer it is also planning to rollout a new anti-bacterial handle bar that kills 99.8% of all viruses within minutes through its self-disinfecting properties – a clever move in a world that seems set to have to live with COVID-19 for some time longer.

But with scooters the current darling of the low-carbon micro-mobility space, are we in danger of forgetting their staid predecessor that did so much to pave the way?

Electric Assisted Pedal Cycles (EAPCs) have become a familiar feature in London, with the hyper green of Lime, as well as Beryl, Freebike and the bright red of JUMP.

Concerns abound in some quarters that the introduction of e-scooters will mean the end for EAPCs, therefore undermining the new and welcome trend for active transport being encouraged across the UK. Indeed, in the call for evidence for its Future of Transport Regulatory Review, the Department for Transport (DfT) sought reassurance that scooters would not simply replace walking and cycling journeys. However, plenty of places around the world have seen both modes exist, and even thrive, alongside each other, suggesting that different use cases have developed for each.

Though ideal for short trips, e-scooters suffer over longer distances and less even terrain as a result of their smaller wheels. It is likely that their larger, sturdier cousins will continue to be preferred for longer trips or jaunts to more exotic (say, cobbled) locations. Furthermore, though electrified, EAPCs will enjoy a familiarity advantage for many users who may prefer to stick with what they know.

Rather than trusting that such equilibrium will arrive, decision makers should consider options to encourage even greater use of EAPCs, particularly whilst distancing remains a must and active travel is in vogue. One option would be to extend the incentives around commuting, namely the Cycle to Work scheme, to promote use as many of us return to offices and other places of work.

This would be less difficult, in practice, than it may sound. Shared bicycle providers have offered corporate or regular membership options for some time. Predecessor to shared cycling, Santander bikes, have long offered an annual subscription in which users can access an unlimited number of short trips. Beryl and Lime have both offered corporate services of late, and the latter has just introduced an option for a monthly subscription to access a set number of trips. The rules governing the cycle to work benefit enabled businesses to provide a “pooled scheme” for employee use, and it would be straightforward to widen this definition to enable shared EAPC providers to offer their fleets.

As the DfT creates and tests policy proposals as part of its Transport Decarbonisation Plan, meaningful input from EAPC providers – for example, through workshops and the recently launched consultation – will be welcomed.

Even without the change described above, it would be folly to assume that the humble EAPC will be abandoned now its smaller, glitzier alternative has arrived. If we are to recognise the true potential of multi-modal low-carbon urban transport, this pair should share our streets for some time to come.