Large ungainly versions of the childhood microscooter have started to populate cities around the world. These electric scooters can be seen dotting streets, parks, pavements all over. Many people own them individually, and hire schemes in some cities mean that they are increasingly available for more general use too.
E-scooters are now legal in a growing number of countries, though there are very different rules as to where they can be used. Sometimes, riders are allowed to use pedestrian walks, sometimes roads, and sometimes cycle tracks. But the emerging consensus is that e-scooters should be treated as bicycles.
They seem to be hugely popular. Introduce e-scooters in any city, and demand is instant. Companies like Bird and Lime have sold millions of rides. Assuming that e-scooters replace a share of car traffic, this is a very good reason to welcome them. Yet resistance to this new mode of transport is often significant. Vandalism, cluttering, and reckless riding anger many. It’s no surprise that newspaper headlines have invoked urban “scooter wars”.
Whether you like or hate them, what is certain is that the way transport operates in cities needs to change – they are too crowded and polluted, there are too many accidents, there is too much noise. To make them more liveable, we need more green space and more active transport – walking, cycling or riding electric vehicles.
Given the promises and problems of e-scooters in particular, I’ve been looking into them more systematically. My research has shown that there are three key areas where they cause problems – but they have fairly easy solutions.
Conflicts and tensions
My focus was on ten cities that have introduced them recently: Brisbane, Christchurch, Copenhagen, Dallas, Los Angeles, Málaga, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna and Zurich. I analysed all local news items from these cities discussing e-scooters, to identify the problems encountered and the policy solutions implemented. My results indicate that e-scooters can certainly improve transport systems, and the common gripes and difficulties can be avoided with a few simple policies.
E-scooters cause three main types of conflicts. Most obviously, people are angered by irresponsible use of the scooters. Speeding, drink and reckless riding, or riding on sidewalks or roads greatly annoy other users of the roads. This is related to questions about the safety of e-scooter riders and other transport users, which is the second major issue discussed at length in the news.
Another major source of annoyance is cluttering and vandalism. This is enabled by the way in which e-scooter rental schemes work: rather than having designated pick-up and drop-off areas, they can be found dotted around the city. An app shows users where the nearest scooters are, which you can activate online, use, and drop off wherever you want.
This system unsurprisingly leads to e-scooters being left in far from ideal places. E-scooters parked on sidewalks, thrown over fences, or ditched into rivers indicate that many of them have short lifetimes, a few months at most.
In response to these gripes, various cities have introduced a wide range of policies, often on an ad hoc basis – meaning that these new rules fairly regularly need to be readjusted. Paris, for example, has repeatedly changed its legislation as to where e-scooters are allowed to drive, and at which speed, and where they should be parked.
Cities also struggle when national legislation prevents meaningful local policy initiatives. Spanish cities, for example, have struggled with this, as councils would like to restrict their use in their extensive pedestrian areas, or allow use only at lower speeds, but may not be able to legally do so because of national laws.
Three policy suggestions
My comparative study has allowed me to develop three simple measures that should resolve most of the conflicts surrounding e-scooters. Most important, perhaps, is that cities restrict their use to bicycle infrastructure. E-scooters interfere with traffic flowing at higher or slower speeds when used on roads or sidewalks. To align cyclists with riders, their speeds should be limited at 25 km/h. Cities should also establish designated parking rental areas, ideally every 200m, preferably with options to recharge e-scooters.
The above policies should resolve most e-scooter problems. But cities can and should go further, if they see these vehicles as a catalyst for real urban change.
Yes, e-scooters require additional space. This should not be seen as an obstacle to their use: there is so much promise in the idea of introducing entire car-free “micromobility streets”, where cyclists, pedestrians and e-scooters could share the road. Such streets would invite more vulnerable traffic participants, such as children, to become active transport users: accident risks are vastly reduced.
And where they form networks throughout cities, such streets would make it far more attractive to cycle, walk or ride. This would have the benefit of reducing the pressure on existing transport systems, improving population health, and creating more liveable cities.
The way ahead
Re-designating road space is of course not easy. There are many with vested interests who would prefer to keep city systems reliant on the car. But such a re-design would benefit more people in the long run. The car uses more space than such vehicles, pollutes, and causes more severe accidents. And each micromobility user reduces pressure on scarce urban space. A car driven at 50 km/h requires 70 times more space than a cyclist or pedestrian.
Even though my research confirms that there are considerable complaints and issues when it comes to e-scooters, I think that they are an overwhelmingly welcome addition to urban transportation. E-scooters provide an opportunity to re-think urban transport, increase quality of life, and improve city dwellers’ mental and physical health.