E-scooters are the real Marmite vehicle, but why do they divide opinion so violently? And, can the haters be won over?
Will the British public ever fall in love with the electric scooter? Or is it a machine forever tarnished by early experiences?
Scooter sharing schemes were being rolled out in many European cities before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and post-lockdown, the electric scooter has enjoyed a resurgence. In Italian cities, there has been a concerted boom in e-scooter use, the result of many commuters doing anything to avoid using public transport. Many climate change activists are also holding the scooter aloft as a vehicle not for the future but for now.
In the UK, the trialling of e-scooters in selected areas has begun and is being hailed as a possible alternative to overcrowded public transport in cities and beneficial to rural communities too.
And yet, the e-scooter still has an image problem.
Dangerous novelty to beneficial commuting solution
E-scooters have been available to buy in the UK for some time even though archaic laws prevent their legal use on the road or pavement. The reason, for sure , why British cities escaped the sudden and overwhelming impact of scooter sharing schemes that other European cities did.
The problems were many and varied. Scooters were abandoned wherever people climbed off them and left littering the streets. People were knocked over. Riders were hurt and pedestrians were placed in danger. Everyone, and anyone, who rode an e-scooter, if some people on social media were to be believed, was totally irresponsible.
And yet, these battery-powered two-wheeled machines have relatively sound green credentials. The best e-scooters are rechargeable and also emission-free at point of use but some of the dockless sharing schemes were not quite as environmentally friendly as the operators would like us to believe.
This double whammy of not only being seen as dangerous but also as a potential polluter placed the e-scooter in the ‘no, thank you’ basket.
And yet today, e-scooter sharing schemes are available in cities from New Zealand to Chile, from South Korea and Paris. Research suggests that in four years, there will be more than 4 million shared e-scooters in use across the globe, a significant jump on the 774,000 in 2019.
Travel habits vary, however. In Paris, research found e-scooters were being used when the rider would normally have walked, but in Wellington, New Zealand, the e-scooter was found to have replaced 21% of short car journeys.
What caused the shift from dangerous novelty to a commuting solution, not just abroad but in the UK too?
Being taken seriously
The e-scooter is now seen as such a serious contender in the campaign to discover more accessible transport solutions trials of e-scooter sharing schemes are underway in several UK cities. But what has prompted the change?
- The e-scooter rider
The thing with the scooter is that many critics still saw it as a child’s toy. The alternative gift to the bike that, as children, we spent many hours happily kicking the scooter along.
Adding a motor to it with an efficient rechargeable battery placed it firmly in front of a new market. Many detractors assumed it would be feral teenagers who would take to the e-scooter, fearing they would terrorise the streets.
Like the skateboard, and the hoverboard before it, detractors of the e-scooter feared that in the ‘irresponsible hands’ of the younger generation it could be dangerous . But this isn’t what has happened.
There are a small minority of scooter riders who do misuse them, just like there are cyclists, motorists and pedestrians who disobey the rules of the road.
The e-scooter can present riders with mobility solutions. Recent coverage of the story of an ill teenager in Liverpool having his e-scooter confiscated led to him getting it back. Riding his e-scooter gave him independence, as well as being the perfect vehicle to allow him to get around easily and comfortably.
Campaigners are currently pressuring the UK Government to make scooters legal on the roads so people can use them for commuting. This alone is indicative that it is not teenagers alone who use them, especially those machines promoted as being for the daily commute.
- Time to take back control – licensing & regulation
Like e-bikes and bikes, there has been a surge in e-scooter purchases in recent months, a direct result of restrictions on public transport and lockdown life.
We know that the use of these machines is illegal in the UK unless on private land, and only then with the landowners' permission, but this doesn’t seem to be putting people off buying them.
The solution to congested cities and busy town centres, along with poor rural transport infrastructure, is not to limit how people get around but to increase the options. The more diverse and accessible transport solutions people have, the more likely they are to leave the car on the drive.
The ongoing UK trials of e-scooters is also a means by which authorities, from Government to police, can control and monitor their use. And when they are being ridden irresponsibly, too fast or dangerously, action can be taken.
Many European cities have wrestled back control by stipulating how and where scooters can be ridden. For example, in Paris riders can face a hefty fine for riding their scooter on the pavement.
With regulations in place and effective policing, people feel their concerns are being taken seriously and are thus more likely to develop a favourable view of e-scooters. Hopefully.
- The concept and understanding of micro-mobility
Micro-mobility is a term we are hearing a lot more. It is a term used to describe a range of small, lightweight devices that operate at speeds of less than 25kmh and are ideal for short trips, usually 10km or less. The umbrella term covers e-scooters, e-skateboards, e-bikes including sharing schemes and privately-owned machines.
Traditionally, when people found public transport lacking – it might be too expensive, too infrequent, inaccessible or too crowded – the go-to alternative was the car, even though it wasn’t always cheaper or faster. There is comfort in being in the car on your own and in control.
Micro-mobility is the drive to connect all the different means of moving around a city or town. Essentially, it means giving people more how-to-travel options other than the car.
- COVID-19 has highlighted the need for change
The ‘new normal’ refers to life post-lockdown. This likely means changes to how we work, commute and ultimately live our lives.
COVID-19 is an indiscriminate disease which has killed thousands of fit and healthy people. Learning about the virus and transmission is ongoing but scientists have emphasised that being in close physical proximity to anyone with symptoms for a length of time increases the chances of transmission.
Commuting to work on a packed bus, train or tube carriage is no longer viable for most people. The compulsory wearing of face masks will not alleviate all concerns.
The result is people will find other ways of getting from A to B. Rather than hopping in the car, zipping to work, the gym or the corner shop on an e-scooter is a viable alternative.
Still dividing opinion
E-scooters are a technology-led disruption to the world of transport and commuting, reason alone to divide opinion. As a ‘new’ technology, we are naturally suspicious. The sudden appearance of these battery-powered machines led to a loud cry for maintaining the status quo, just like when the bicycle became popular it was decried as being “immoral”.
The fact that the e-scooter is also fun to use did little for it to be taken as a serious contender.
People want – and need – alternatives not just for the daily commute but for how they move around towns and cities at other times. The e-scooter, as the newcomer, won’t provide all the answers and that’s the point: no single technology will. That’s why micro-mobility is just one important key to accessible travel but it is also why the e-scooter’s image may be about to change from a fickle foe to a trusted friend.