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E-scooters in the UK public transport mix

Kathryn Hinchey highlights the challenges faced by local authorities rolling out e-scooter trials due to gaps that remain in the Government legislation and guidance. Here, she discusses the steps needed to ensure that future e-scooter use on UK roads is viable, and that ongoing trials bear fruit.

E-scooters have the potential to become an important part of the UK’s transport mix. Easy to use, convenient and sustainable, their accessibility has seen popularity soar in cities around the world.

Having been banned from use on public roads in the UK, the Government fast-tracked e-scooter trials last year after recognising their potential as a social distancing-friendly method of transport and as a means of offsetting reduced public transport capacity. Trials of shared e-scooter schemes are currently underway in towns and cities across the UK, as local authorities work to assess how they fit into their existing transport infrastructure and how they can be introduced safely.

The challenge is that much of the responsibility for implementing new guidelines and ensuring compliance with legislation sits with local authorities. Their technical knowledge of the subject – and budgets – varies widely, making the roll-out of e-scooter trials is inconsistent. And there are a large number of different e-scooter providers using differing levels of technology and safety equipment. This in turn means that data gathered from the trials may not be sufficient to inform crucial policy decisions that will regulate overall e-scooter use in the long term.

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Transport for London, for example, is currently rolling out the biggest e-scooter trial in the UK, with providers Tier, Lime and Dott all selected to take part. The tender process involved an assessment of their ability to meet strict safety requirements and operating standards in addition to being able to demonstrate their understanding of London’s broader transport ambitions and goals.

By contrast, in the West Midlands, the procurement process for trials is based purely on how much investment an operator is willing to provide towards infrastructure costs. Other local authorities are still working to integrate e-scooters within existing public transport operations through a single operator approach.

However, despite the disparity in approach, there are a number of common issues for local authorities to consider when devising and implementing e-scooter trials.

Small wheels and potholes

With most e-scooters used as part of the trials having a wheel size ranging from 9-11.5 inches in diameter and reaching speeds of up to 15.5mph, there is potential for even the most insignificant highway defects to present a risk to riders.

Coupled with the fact that helmets are not compulsory for riders and that e-scooter riders are more likely to sustain a head injury than pedal cyclists, this potentially creates a significant exposure for local authorities – a consideration that has not yet been addressed.

Cutting through the clutter

Another prominent area of concern amongst local authorities is that of street clutter. Current Government guidance advocates ‘free floating’ e-scooter models, which offer a wide variety of set-down locations in towns and cities, similar to the Mobike scheme that became popular in 2018. While convenient for riders, this approach risks becoming detrimental to other road and pavement users, particularly those with a visual impairment – an issue that prompted the rapid decline of Mobikes in cities such as Manchester.

An alternative is installing docking infrastructure, although, whilst this approach is more orderly, it is often less convenient for riders and has significant cost and planning implications for local authorities.

Technologies such as geo-fencing have been cited as solutions with e-scooter users only able to end their journeys once vehicles are parked in virtual ‘fenced’ zones. Clarity on how such measures will be funded and implemented is critical to enable local authorities to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place and to factor this into budgeting decisions.

Consideration also needs to be given to how e-scooters fit into the existing travel framework and potential conflicts between other modes of active travel presently being promoted. During lockdown, £2 billion of additional funding was pledged to support the creation of dedicated walking and cycling routes.

Whilst any overcrowding should be limited to cycle lanes, there is a risk of e-scooters being used on pavements and in other pedestrianised zones. Integrating e-scooters and ensuring that these spaces do not become overcrowded in trial areas presents a challenge for local authorities seeking to map out their transport infrastructure.  Further Government guidance and a consistent approach would no doubt assist.

Keep it green

The green credentials of e-scooters are widely celebrated. However, whilst their sustainability has notably improved in recent years, their overall environmental impact is still significantly affected by vehicle design, material usage and operational procedures for end-users.

Whilst we will no doubt see further improvements as technology advances, local authorities continue to grapple with ambitious carbon reduction targets and environmental policy objectives. E-scooters’ current limitations may stymie plans for designing trials and selecting operators if their green credentials are not sufficient.

Any future legislation governing the use of e-scooters in the UK should arguably include not only the mechanics of their introduction, but encompass manufacturing and production to support efforts to reduce carbon emissions. However, it may prove difficult to implement and regulate this in relation to private e-scooter use given the number of different manufacturers and the accessibility of private e-scooters across the market.

An appropriate regulatory regime is required if e-scooters - both shared schemes and private use - are here to stay. Recent clarification from Government as to proposed speed restrictions and the indication that riding on pavements is to be prohibited, should legalisation follow, is a positive step. However, significant uncertainty remains as to future requirements, such as minimum age for use, whether driving licences will be required and the position in relation to insurance, which does not afford any of the key stakeholders an opportunity to plan for the future.

The Government must be ready to work with local authorities, e-scooter providers, police and the public to fully assess the impact of possible or proposed changes in legislation, and to ensure that the necessary infrastructure, regulation and education is in place to enable any wider introduction of e-scooters to be a success.

Kathryn Hinchey is a Principal Associate at Weightmans.

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