| Eva Sturt | Décembre 2020 |

 

Commuting during and after lockdown on two (small) wheels

Lady Florence Norman, a suffagette, on her motor-scooter in 1916, travelling to work at offices in London where she was a supervisor. The scooter was a birthday present from her husband, the journalist and Liberal politician Sir Henry Norman.

Is micro-mobility really changing in London ?

London is a cautious follower of the trending but controversial electrically powered two-wheel-phenomenon around the globe – Adults on scooters!

However, lock-down opened new perspectives. A new government trial scheme for battery-powered two-wheelers made many headlines over the summer. What was happening in the British metropole and what is the situation now? Do e-scooters have a future?

 

Transport in London is a notoriously difficult, much debated, divisive and complex subject:

This city is a colourful kaleidoscope of the oldest engineered mobility network in the world. An almost honourably overcrowded and polluted underground service paired with smelly buses. Notoriously strike and/or maintenance burdened and overpriced trains. All of those competing with intermittent and often seriously unsafe inner-city cycle-paths, which demand a good degree of confidence, fatalism and die-hard attitude.

 

Through the lens of lockdown perspectives have changed

Our communication, interaction and inevitably our view of the environment were altered.

“Big Changes” seemed accessible, they were happening in front of us.

London, like many other global buzz-zones, became unrecognisable: planes, trains, cars, buses, tubes, reduced to a fraction of their usual volume, the city changed its face yet, when restrictions eased slightly, this new norm felt like a tabula rasa. An opportunity.

The daily allowance of walk/run in a calm and peaceful city seemed to change the perception of outdoor living, as cycling went through a true renaissance. Demographics, it appears at the moment, will change irreversibly, with remote working set to continue and a shift of wealthy office-workers opting for rural relocations. Nobody quite knows presently how exactly this will unfold, but chances are, that the inner city’s streets will remain quieter, less people will be on pavements.

Most importantly alternatives to reduced public services, creating a new network of mobility, which eases the burden, suddenly moved up in the priority list of the decision makers.

On 4th July, the governments hastily set up new guidance “to support a ‘green’ restart of local travel to help mitigate reduced public transport capacity” came into force. A £2 billion project (see ref.) incorporates a one-year e-scooter rental trial.

So far so good, as many happy headlines across London exclaimed the news of this sudden U-turn, until which all e-scooters in the UK were illegal to be used on either roads or pavements.

However, this neither was nor is easy or straightforward.

 

The current situation of e-scooters in London and the UK

As with other recent UK policies and public guidance, confusion seems to reign. It took some thorough research to untangle the status of the legal use in the UK, as Marie Black, editor-in-chief of the online Tech Advisor sympathised, whilst answering a few important questions (1st July, see link).

A summary including above as well as government and other media resources leave us with the following picture:

Only electric scooters hired under the current rental scheme and/or from insured and registered lenders are allowed on roads. Registration for boroughs and councils to participate ended on 31st August. The key guidelines include that vehicle capacity must not exceed 15.5 mph, only cycle lanes but not paths, as well as roads to a maximum of 30mph limit, may be used. Pavements are strictly forbidden. In fact, legally rentable scooters need to stick to their set geo-fenced area. Only. Privately owned vehicles are illegal across the UK. Lastly, users have to hold a full or provisional licence and failure to adhere to the rules can incur a £300 fine and 6 penalty points on the licence.

Though the largest roll-out under the scheme has actually started in Birmingham and Coventry on 10th September, with a few other Boroughs across the UK also taking part, London is still very much untouched by any major scooting reformations.

Maybe the shaking experience of last year’s death of TV-presenter Emily Hartridge whilst on an e-scooter in southeast London enforced the legal limits in the capital. No London borough seems to have signed up to the government’s rental scheme. London, as it stands, is still missing on Bird’s list of cities that have joined their popular rental scheme (see their website).

So, not too sure what to make of it, I asked a few people for their opinion. And wondered, if e-scooters really are the haloed solution to mobile urban dilemmas, as proponents of micro mobility try to convey. Especially considering London.

 

Past and present

Historically, according to DocEazy, the first stand up e-scooters date back to the early 20th century, then named Autoped, particularly popular for a while with New York Police. Their production seized shortly after it was taken over by German manufacturer Krupp in 1919. It was the cumbersome battery that never allowed them to really break through. Today’s technology and perspective is rather different.

They seem to be the motorised piece-de-resistance of modern urban connectivity:

Fast, sleek, compact, with an element of edgy freedom, non-conformism. Effortlessly cool.

The fun-factor of scooting with electric charge is their USP, I do believe!

Yet, integrating this transport-unicorn into city life is not a small and easy feat. It needs to consider their usability within existing networks. Pondering as a keen cyclist myself about the availability of dedicated, safe and shareable roads considering large rollouts of vehicles, London’s roads don’t feel ready !

 

Learning and adapting

The enthusiastic mayor of West Midlands Birmingham, Andy Street, confessed his belief that their planned 10 000 electric scooters soon to connect a vast area, for a £1,- unlocking and 0.20,- per minute driving charge, is designed to lead the transformation of UK’s micro mobility landscape (BBC, 14th September). Having learned from mistakes, home and abroad, technology allows the rental schemes to manage e-scooters on a different scale: geo-fencing strictly limits their use to designated areas, outside which they are disabled. Higher charges and tracking systems are believed to reduce the significant environmental burden experienced across the globe with careless dumping. Earlier mentioned measures regarding speed, safety und licencing further back up the plan.

 

Realism, scepticism and looking into the future

Key argument is clearly a reduction of harmful environmental gases, less pollution. An interesting 2019 study from North Carolina University documented that e-scooters improve emission in relation to single-car use yet are more environmentally taxing in comparison to other public transport, such as trains or buses. Lucy Yu from VOI, Birmingham’s scooter supplier, argues that: “In the UK, 60% of car journeys are between one and three miles, which significantly increases congestion.” (BBC, 14th September) Are legalised e-scooters a desperate attempt to autonomise a greater care for the environment by adding the unique fun-factor to car-alternatives? Mo-bikes have not quite taken off!

 

The verdict is still out there

Whatever happens, I remain quietly sceptical. Scooters, electric or not, set a certain mind-set owing to their size and agility. Quite different to the bicycle, its closest traffic-ally, I would argue. Earlier this year in July, Euronews reported alarming safety concerns about drink-driving on e-scooters in Denmark, not to mention German Police having to seize hundreds of licences when intoxicated whizzers endangered the crowds at last year’s Oktoberfest. I struggle to imagine similar behaviour to be associated with bicycles. In any case, a clear and manageable policy and guidance, as well dedicated supervision, seem paramount.

As for myself, I shall for now continue to use public transport when needed and otherwise mainly walk and cycle, reasonably sensible, and after months of traffic lock-down continue to enjoy, mindfully, the aftermath of a rejuvenated environment.

 

Eva SturtEca Sturt

 

 

 

 

Different views

Firstly, I consulted the neighbourhood, and a vast majority of middle-aged professionals held a rather distanced and critical attitude. Irritation and concern about safety accompanied by stories of near-accidents dominated. But I was interested to know, what some of the e-scooter drivers, and not too few it seems, actually have to say.
Two local residents, Sarah, 59 and Haley 15 (names changed), answered my questions:

Why do you use an e-scooter?

Haley: It’s fun and quick and much easier for short trips. I prefer it to a bus and get some fresh air.

Sarah: I used to cycle a lot, but now I prefer to scooter, it’s easier, fast and more comfortable.

People complain about them being unpredictable and endangering others because you don’t hear them.

Haley: I feel safer on the pavement, so I scoot there, but I am very careful and look out for other people.

Sarah: I use mine on the road just like my bike and really can’t see the problem.

A survey showed that 50% of people are unaware that private scooters are illegal, how do you feel about that?

Haley: Well, I don’t know, I got the scooter from my uncle as a present. My family doesn’t mind so neither do I.

Sarah: I have been e-scooting for a long time now and nobody ever stopped me. I don’t go fast and drive carefully. I don’t think anyone cares in London if they are legal or not. Everyone seems fine with it.

So here we are, Londoners don’t seem to mind much, that their e-scooting habit is against the law, but is there some realistic hope that this will change and do we feel ready and prepared if it was to happen?

 

 

References:

 

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