1 Jul 2020

From mid-July, rented e-scooters could become ubiquitous in many UK cities, with yesterday evening’s Department for Transport (DfT) announcement paving the way for trials across local authorities. The aim is twofold: to relieve pressure on public transport as the UK recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, and to help decarbonise transport in response to the climate emergency.

The move comes as the UK plays catch up with other European countries where swathes of the population – as much as 41% according to one survey in Finland – have swapped cars for e-scooters for “the last mile” of their journeys.

The trials, which will run for 12 months, will allow companies to offer rental e-scooters to users aged 16 or over. Hirers will need full or provisional driving licences but won’t need to wear helmets. The e-scooters will be allowed to be ridden at a maximum speed of 15.5mph on roads and cycleways, but not on pavements or shared-use cycleway/pavement combos.

The use of privately owned scooters remains illegal in public spaces, but legislative changes are expected as part of the future of transport regulatory review. DfT is looking closely at international examples and officials are keen to understand what kinds of requirements can realistically be placed on vehicles and users.

Acceptance of e-scooters is only half the problem  

Although rental e-scooters have been common in other European cities for some time, the safety concerns about how and where they are used are manifold.

In a recent survey, while two-thirds of consumers welcomed the acceleration of plans to introduce e-scooters, 90% of respondents said that the Government’s proposed rules for e-scooters are unsafe. Two in five (40%) believed the Government’s proposed rider rules would be broken, such as scooting on pavements which is currently banned, while more than a third (37%) are worried it could be hazardous for pedestrians and other road users if too many people ride e-scooters.

Addressing these concerns, a recent International Transport Forum study on safety and micro mobility found that e-scooter riders do not face a significantly higher risk of road traffic death or injury than cyclists do. In fact, a trip by car or by motorcycle in a dense urban area is more likely to result in a traffic fatality than a trip by a micro-vehicle, which includes skateboards and skates as well as bicycles and scooters.

The appetite for e-scooters seems clear, but the challenges facing their rollout are abundant as companies compete against one other in each of the pilot cities. While the Government’s announcement appears to signify a micromobility revolution in the UK, for e-scooter companies the hard work has only begun.

What do e-scooter companies need to do now?

For e-scooter companies, local and regional (as well as national) engagement programmes and communications campaigns will be of critical importance.

The trials offer opportunities for real-world testing of e-scooters to inform a later decision about legislation. This decision will be based on the success of the pilot programme. Working with local authorities, e-scooter companies will be partly responsible for mitigating concerns about e-scooters as a viable mode of transport.

DfT officials are keen for industry to explain what regulatory framework they think is best, supported by data and case studies. A key tension will be designing a framework that supports both national standards and local decision making.

City region transport authorities will want to play a significant role in shaping the future regulatory and legislative framework for e-scooters. This will include the powers to cap the number of rental e-scooters, implement parking restrictions, set standards for rental operators to meet, and require them to share data to help inform transport network planning and avoid outcomes which are against the wider public interest.

These companies must demonstrate that they can be trusted partners to authorities in addressing the complexity of the rollout. Fostering productive relationships with stakeholders will be critical, helping both parties to navigate the challenges ahead. For some of the companies involved, as relative newcomers to the UK market, stakeholder engagement at this level may need to begin from a standing start. Coming equipped with an in-depth understanding of the policy landscape and regional idiosyncrasies will be invaluable.

Meanwhile, they need to win the hearts and minds of consumers in a competitive marketplace, convincing them that their products are safe, convenient, superior to their rivals’ and, above all else, worthwhile – both personally and from a wider, societal perspective. Alongside micromobility’s net zero contribution, a factor not to be overlooked – and one that is of interest to DfT – is the social impact of transport in increasing accessibility and tackling loneliness.

Those are the hard parts. Beyond the commercial incentive, the reasons for doing all of this are more straightforward: to aid the recovery from the pandemic, to decarbonise the final mile, and to revolutionise the way we use our urban spaces.