Why E-Scooters really aren’t the menace they’re being made out to be.
The Great British public love a good divisive topic. Brexit, mask-wearing, jam or cream first on your scones — it’s in our nature. With no surprise post-Brexit and with COVID measures winding down, there’s a new divisive topic in the air — the use of e-scooters on the streets of the UK. But since we’re here, it’s definitely cream first.
This is a decision we as the UK are (typically) quite late to the party on, as we’re now the only major European economy to still have outlawed e-scooters and other Personal Light Electric Vehicles (PLEVs), with much of the continent as well as other major parts of the globe adopting their use in a variety of ways. Now the UK is faced with the decision to hop on this electrified, eco-friendly bus, or spend the next couple years futilely trying to wave it down whilst being left behind.
As it stands, PLEVs are currently illegal to use on public highways in the UK. The world of PLEVs extends well beyond just e-scooters as ever more inventive, efficient and down-right fun methods of transportation emerge. This term encompasses vehicles such as Onewheels, Electric Unicycles (EUCs), Electric Skateboards, Segways, and of course the current “scourge” of our streets — the dreaded e-scooter. The actual items themselves aren’t illegal, but they’ve fallen through a bit of a crack in the UK’s legal system when it comes to vehicles. To put it in layman’s, since they’re not human-powered, they fall under the same category as a car or a motorbike — meaning they’re subject to needing VED (Tax, but its free for electric vehicles anyway) and insurance. Except, you can’t insure a car without a valid MOT — and you can’t get an MOT certificate without license plates, VIN identification… You see the point, we’re a bit stuck. Recently however, we have started to see some legal use of e-scooters through hire schemes, and we’ll get to how that has been established shortly.
It’s the UK’s inability to keep up with emerging technology and hesitancy on changing the status-quo that’s landed us far behind our European or American neighbours — after all, it’s only in recent years that the UK has started to actually commit to a more substantial cycling infrastructure, pledging “£2 billion to create a new era for cycling and walking”. We’re scared to leave the protective steel cages of our cars that up until the ban of the combustion engine in 2030, will continue to throw out pollution, and even after that will continue jam up our streets with traffic, unless we make some kind of change. People like Jeremy Clarkson have ingrained this idea in the British public that “cycling = bad”, where if you’ve ever been across the water to the Netherlands, you’ll realise that commuting and travelling in the fresh air is a pleasure when the roads are set up for it.
So it comes as no surprise that the nation of “those bloody cyclists” have re-directed their angst towards the latest micro-mobility solution, e-scooters. But why? The typical points made on the local Facebook ranting pages are that “They’re too quiet, I can’t hear them coming!”, “They’re too bloody fast!”, or the one that actually has the most merit — “They’re so dangerous on pavements!”. Whilst I don’t deny these are points of consideration, they don’t actually apply solely to e-scooters. In fact, I’d say they are equally true of not just conventional cyclists, but perhaps even early electric cars (before the recent ruling that below 12mph, electric cars need to hum like an ominous flying saucer in order to alert pedestrians).
I’ve been a cyclist since I was around 14 — it was just the cheapest way for me to get around through most of my teenage years, and once I got my first car it became a physical training tool whilst keeping fit. I gained a lot of road awareness in that time, fortified by having my driving license for over a decade now (yep, that makes me nearly thirty — talking about scooters and skateboards). Even without an e-scooter, I could be hitting north of 20mph on a 10–12kg road bike with relative ease — and I could be doing so fairly silently, and it’d certainly be dangerous to be doing that on a pavement. Hitting a pedestrian would suck for all parties involved. The reason for pointing all of this out, is that it starts to establish the fact that e-scooters and electric rideables themselves, are not inherently evil. Before the time of electric mobility, “bloody youths pulling wheelies” were still a problem on our roads. We don’t have a problem with e-scooters, we have a problem with their users — and there’s a pretty good reason for that.
As mentioned previously, there’s only one legal way to ride an e-scooter currently in the UK, and that is through hire schemes set out in specific test areas of the country such as Canterbury, Liverpool, and soon-to-be London. Through these schemes, providers such as Voi, Lime, and Dott are able to satisfy the need for liability insurance through integrating it into the cost of the rental. There’s also a stack of other safety features packed in there too — like a 15.5mph speed limit, with some areas enforcing an even lower speed limit (such as public parks, and busy high streets) via Geo-Fencing. To hire a scooter, your personal and banking details are tied to the app you use to unlock it — so if you’re particularly naughty, it wouldn’t be too hard to track you down and ban you from the service. Users are required to have at least a provisional license and are only advised to wear a helmet.
With the legal usage covered, let’s talk about the outlawed side of things. This should help us understand why e-scooters and PLEVs in general are becoming the latest scourge of our streets, in the eyes of those less willing to accept that sometimes, change is a good thing. If something is illegal — who is likely to do it? Well, rule-breakers of course. It’s a pretty simple concept. So if you’re outside of these “treacherous” scooter trial areas and you spot an e-scooter dipping and dodging down the high street, it’s likely because that individual clearly didn’t care enough about the law to begin with — why would they then care about road etiquette? Thus, the terrible reputation begins to fester. Let me reassure you though — these are not the only users out there; these are just the bad eggs. For every poor experience you may have already had with electric rideables, there’s likely just as many (if not more) individuals who are using the technology in a courteous and sensible manner out there that don’t even register on your radar. We all know that negativity sticks out more in our lives than positivity.
I know this because I am one of the sensible few. I ride a Onewheel here in the UK — putting all those years of road experience to good use, I’m able to navigate streets safely and sensibly without harm. Always with a helmet, pads, and lights. I’m courteous. I’m not usually the type to tip my hat and give a “Good Morning!” to everyone I pass when I’m on foot, but I do it on the Onewheel. It seems to put a lot of people from a variety of generations at ease. It’s more of a “I promise I’m one of the good ones. I’m not a threat. I won’t run you over.” I’ve had some great chats in my time with people who wished they were “just a little bit younger” in order to have a go, since I imagine the giant grin on my face every time I ride really gives away just how much fun it is to ride. I first used an electric rideable when myself and 7 friends visited Brussels for a week. The moment we spotted them outside of the Eurostar terminal, we were hooked. We must have covered about 100km in the week we were in the city — taking in sight after sight in the glorious sunshine, without a single Uber or taxi. It was refreshing, safe, and made a lot of sense.
I’ve got some great cycle infrastructure around me, so I have the ability to stick mostly to cycle paths and quiet roads here in the UK. Busy roads are a little unnerving, sure. At the end of the day, you’re on a skateboard that has one wheel — you’re exposed, the same can be said for a scooter. I’ll never use a pavement being used by a pedestrian, but occasionally I’ll make the judgement call that in a small number of scenarios an empty pavement is more beneficial to my safety. If I’m out of options, I’ll just hop off and walk. I’m part of a huge number of “e-skate” communities who use Onewheels and electric skateboards, and advocate for their safe and sensible usage in the UK. Our group rides have a “no helmet, no ride” policy. Users are encouraged to chat to rogue users of electric rideables, invite them to the Facebook group, and to encourage better riding from them. We all want to see the best for the future involving PLEVs. We’re rule-breakers, but we wish we weren’t. It’s not even uncommon for police officers to stop e-skaters purely out of an appreciation of how cool the devices are, and often left with a polite “Ride safely please” for our troubles.
Because why aren’t they the future? Cycling is great, but arriving to the office in the morning sweaty kind of sucks, doesn’t it? Why does a 2-mile trip from my home office to the local coffee roasters on my high street require me to drive my 2-tonne diesel estate through traffic, worrying about parking at the high street and again with the on-street parking back at my house? My current push bike is set up for hardcore physical training, I really don’t fancy donning the Lycra shorts and cleated shoes for a coffee I can’t even carry back. An e-scooter, EUC, or e-skate however? Now we’re talking. It just makes sense — doesn’t it? There’s no emissions, you’re not stuck in traffic, no worry about parking, and it’ll barely cost you anything in terms of power use. Data from the scooter trials shows there’s been at least 2 million journeys conducted on them since July 2020 to April 2021 — in that time they’ve covered 5 million kilometres. That’s 13 return journeys to the moon. In that time, how many of these super-dangerous, terrifying contraptions have killed? None. Not one. There have been no fatalities, or even hospitalisations as a result of trial scooters. Of course, there’s a couple of injuries (11 serious, but no hospitalisations, and 62 ‘slight’ injuries). Out of 2 million, that’s 0.0036%. We’re still finding our feet but, compared to the year-on-year average of about 100 cyclist deaths a year, or the 38,800 people killed in cars in 2019, I’d say that’s a pretty positive result. Something that has been absent from discussions is that e-scooters, Onewheels, EUCs — they’re fun. When did we forget that we were able to have a little bit of joy in our lives as we’re getting around? I’ve found so much more of my local town just through not being quite finished with riding around that day.
People, even kids, (not that I agree with kids riding these — you definitely need some good road-sense to be safe on something that accelerates with a push of a button) will have more respect for something they paid £500-£1000 for, over something they’re spending a couple of quid on to rent from a faceless corporation. The problem with this divide between rental and private ownership, is that you could be faced with two extremes and usually punish the wrong end of them. Let’s say you’re in a trial area, you’ve had a beer now that things are opening back up again. Suddenly these scooters sound like a great way to get home, even though you’ve never used one. Realistically, as long as you’re still under the legal alcohol limit, there’s nothing stopping you hopping on one with no helmet, and zipping home with no prior experience and potentially hurting yourself or someone else. If I were to pass you on a privately owned e-scooter wearing a helmet, lights, with a couple of hundred miles of sensible riding experience under my belt — I’m the one at risk of a £300 fine and 6 points on my licence. That doesn’t sound particularly fair, does it?
I can’t deny that e-scooters have an image problem currently. We have no need for the Chinese imports that can hit 50/60mph. I too hate seeing kids with no road sense causing havoc on roads, or two people on one scooter — but they were able to do that on push bikes way before these scooters came along. The trial scooters do have the issue of being littered around a little, which is starting to be helped by allocated parking bays — but solving this is a pretty simple one: let people buy and ride their own. It won’t be on the street if it’s at home. I appreciate that littered scooters are going to be an issue for those with sight difficulties, so the lesser need for hire ones and thus lower numbers on the streets, the better. The current trope of “you can’t hear them coming” bugs me a little. For one of course, no cyclist or e-scooter should be on the pavement anyway, but two; what happened to “Stop. Look. Listen.”? In my experience it’s been downgraded just to “Listen”. As a result, I’ve had plenty of people step out onto a road or cycle path without looking, then blame me for the fact they couldn’t hear (seriously? Have a word).
We have over £2billion being put into cycling infrastructure over the coming years around the UK, into things like segregated paths or cycle-highways like the ones in London that keep pedestrians, cycles, and cars all separate — wouldn’t we get more for our money if we were letting e-rideables use them too? Thus, getting more people out of cars? Cycling isn’t for everyone. I recently heard a radio caller who was an amputee, and as a result couldn’t pedal a bike — but an e-scooter is the perfect way for him to get around. Once we get past this age-old notion that streets are only for cars and start to build streets with human mobility in mind, getting around for anyone outside of a steel cage is going to be so much easier and safer for everyone. We could tackle a lot of the perceived negatives of e-rideables if we just pull our finger out, stop classing them as a car, and start putting properly thought-out rules in place before those rule breakers I mentioned tread the reputation down to a point of no return.
We need to catch up to this bus before it leaves with every other country on board. Let’s nail what we need in order to make them legal and used safely — organisations such as rideables.org have laid out a great framework for what could be done to ensure this: Such as only carrying one person, only ridden where bicycles are permitted and not on pavements, riders must wear a helmet and lights, and there being a minimum age limit enforced. Let’s face it — most of these are pretty common sense. I’ve found that a lot of the community members around me wouldn’t even mind if we were able to pay a couple of quid a month towards insurance (like is the legislation in Belgium) in case of the occasional accidental fall — but we’ve covered why that’s currently not possible under current laws. There are a lot of people that just want these as an environmentally and economically friendly alternative to cars for short trips. I don’t think that’s much of a crime.