Ever since e-scooters came to prominence in cities across the globe, there has been what feels like a concerted effort to stop them in their tracks. Slowly, the tide is beginning to turn and hopefully, the future of e-scooters in London (and beyond) will be safe, green and regulated.
Are e-scooters safe?
The e-scooter boom, screams the article headline, has caused 11 deaths since 2018. In 2019, there was a fatality linked to the use of an electric scooter in London and another serious accident.
Accident statistics are often shared when something new comes along as a means of showcasing just how dangerous or unwanted they are. You only have to look back to the history of transportation, such as the train, see what we mean.
When the steam train became a common feature in the British landscape, many believed that the shaking of the train would cause people to lose consciousness and its speed would leave people gasping for air as it hurtled along. Now just imagine if those against the railway had won - our transport infrastructure would certainly look a lot different, as would the landscape of the country and our lives of many since the first passenger steam train of the 1830s.
The e-scooter, as an effective means of city commuting (and for pleasure) is going through a similar process – people are unsure and uncertain of what they are and what they can do. Seeing only the negative, those against the scooter refuse to believe that two wheels and a rechargeable battery could do anything to solve the congestion crisis in London and other cities, let alone be safe to use.
Just how safe are e-scooters? Ridden responsibly, they are safe. That means;
- Wearing protective clothing including a helmet
- Following the ‘rules of the road’
- Being aware of others road and pavement users
- Not speeding or driving recklessly
- Not using your mobile while on your scooter
Follow these simple rules and you should be just as safe on an e-scooter as you would cycling through London. The introduction of e-scooters on city streets are often compared to cycling in the capital, with safety being top of the list. But what do the stats about cycling accidents and injuries in the capital tell us?
They tell us that despite a significant increase in daily journeys by bike in London, the number of accidents and fatalities have dropped. In 1993, there were 18 deaths linked to cycling in London. In 2016, this had been reduced to eight, even though the number of daily journeys by bike in the capital had tripled.
If nothing else, these stats show that change is possible. But what did change?
The pressure on London’s congested roads is unprecedented. The UK Government continues to look at other means of encouraging people out of cars - and this includes bikes. Along with lofty targets and the use of cycle lanes, people were encouraged to grab their trusty bike and cycle to and from work.
The relationship between cyclist and car, including trucks, buses and taxis, isn’t a harmonious one. There are two sides to every story, of course, but with the city’s leadership committed to making London the world’s best big city for cycling, the bike is going nowhere.
The e-scooter is at the start of this journey. There are those who will maintain the argument that they need to be banned because they are unsafe and those riding them are reckless, just as there will be those who trumpet the e-scooter as a modern-day solution for commuting in London.
How green are e-scooters, really?
Secondly, there is the question of how green electric scooters really are.
A recent study into shared, dockless e-scooters by an American university found that these scooters had a larger carbon footprint than first thought. The main reason was their seemingly short life.
Those against the e-scooter must have rubbed their hands in glee, triumphant that, at last, their theory that these scooters are nothing more than a blight on a city would soon be off the pavements.
Take a closer look at the piece of research and you’ll see the direction in which the findings point.
Shared e-scooter schemes don’t always deliver the best in terms of reducing carbon footprint. Aside from the scooters having a short life, there is also the question of the quality of their build, including the life of its onboard rechargeable battery.
For people who buy their e-scooter for commuting, the findings will be different. Only charging the battery when it needs it and removing it from charge when it is full help to reduce your carbon footprint. And because you look after your e-scooter, it’s less likely to be dumped within a few months or damaged beyond repair.
Like all new technology, things are not perfect with e-scooters. The report’s author, Professor Jeremiah Johnson of North Carolina State University, was at pains to point out that rather than saying e-scooters were best forgotten, the research was seeking ways to improve them.
As well as short life, Johnson also noted that “the materials and manufacturing [of e-scooters] were about half of the greenhouse gas burden”. In sharing schemes, he said, the collection and redistribution of e-scooters accounted for just over 40% of the greenhouse gas burden.
Buying, charging and riding your own, therefore, should have a better carbon footprint than the sharing schemes common in many cities. That said, both have their part to play in reducing congestion and pollution in cities.
What about regulation of e-scooters?
Regulation is double-edged – those against e-scooters in the city see it as a means of thwarting them whilst we believe that regulation of e-scooters in the UK will make them safer. What we do know is that the current act, the Highways Act 1835, that regulates what we can and can’t use on our roads and pavements is outdated and no longer fit for modern times.
E-scooters have a lot to offer the congested city. But how we use them is important. A recent article found that riding an electric scooter in a ‘dense, urban area’ is no more dangerous than riding a bike.
Rather than seeing scooters as part of the problem, they need to be seen as part of the solution.
Regulations governing the use of e-scooters across European cities have sprung up in response to the growing number zooming around the streets. This has led to a fragmented approach - France hand out fines to riders of scooters on Parisian pavements and there are now many different by-laws in Spanish cities and authorities that differ from one district to the next.
Catalina Goata, an assistant law professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who has studied regulations relating to e-scooters, says that “regulatory uncertainty is not good for innovation”. Reactive regulation, she says, tends to be narrow and “not based on evidence”. The solution she says is for authorities and startups to work in unison, coming up with legitimate city and countrywide regulations that answer current concerns.
By and large, current regulations tend to focus on maximum speed, the wearing of protective gear and where scooters can and can’t be used although many people, including Goata, argue the current sets of rules are an emotional response.
For example, the death of a 92-year-old woman hit by an e-scooter in Barcelona in 2019. What the current Spanish regulations didn’t address were all the factors that contributed to this accident - that the user was on his mobile phone and that the scooter was overloaded. Instead, the regulations focus only on speed.
Safe, green and regulated
Knee-jerk regulation could strangle any attempts at establishing the e-scooter as a commuting tool before it has begun. Add to this the fact that how we move around our cities and towns is complex. The growing interest in e-scooters has already demonstrated how versatile, effective and popular they are as a new tool in improving the dreaded daily commute. But, regulation is vital if we are to win the battle to improve the way we can all move around our cities and town effectively and safely.
One size doesn’t fit all, what works for one person, won’t work for another. What works in London may not work in Cardiff, Manchester or Edinburgh.
How we travel and use e-scooters need to be safe and responsible. Just like driving with a mobile phone is illegal, it shouldn’t happen when riding an e-scooter either.
Manufacturing techniques and technology is also changing and advancing, helping to make the e-scooter a green form of commuting. With better regulation and increased safety awareness, more people could be persuaded to leave the car outside of city limits.
We also need to counter emotive language too. Commentators have talked of e-scooters ‘flooding the city’, giving the impression that everywhere you turn, there will be an unlicensed, unregulated, reckless e-scooter rider waiting to mow you down.
What is true, however, is that legislation needs to catch up with modern-day city living and commuting, including the use of e-scooter on our city streets.