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E-scooters: the impact their legalisation would have in the UK

It is currently illegal to ride e-scooters in public spaces in the UK, but this has not stopped riders appearing on roads and pavements. An upcoming national consultation means it is a good time to consider the implications of e-scooters coming to UK streets.

E-scooters are an example of new “micromobilities” – short-distance transport options like bike-sharing schemes, sometimes with electric motors – that are changing how people travel in urban areas. In the UK, e-scooters are likely to be used in busy town and city centres, where people take lots of short journeys for work, education and leisure. The locations where rentable e-scooters could be introduced will probably follow Europe: transport hubs like stations, large businesses and shopping areas and university campuses.

The national consultation will include decisions on where e-scooters can be ridden. In terms of both speed and potential safety issues, e-scooters are slower than cars but faster than walking and probably closer to cycling. The pavement may seem the best place for them, but there have been reports of pedestrians being put at risk or injured by scooters.

Sharing urban space

Cycle lanes may be a more attractive idea. Research in Atlanta found that even temporary segregated lanes make people feel safer on a scooter. Yet the UK is behind many European cities when it comes to dedicated and safe infrastructure. This raises the question of how e-scooter users can safely share space with pedestrians or general traffic.

The UK can learn from cities in Europe and elsewhere on how to balance e-scooter use and available space. Barcelona has introduced regulations to limit scooter use and speed when sharing space with pedestrians, and in Paris e-scooters have been banned from pavements.

The UK can also engage in dialogue with e-scooter operators. Dockless e-scooter company Lime, for example, has been organising roundtable discussions for researchers, local authorities, transport providers and the police. They have put forward their views on how cities can support the development of e-scooters.

There are concerns that scooter use may put people off walking. Shutterstock/Gorlov-KV

Legalising e-scooters would require considering how they will interact with other road and pavement users. If e-scooters are to be made legal in the UK, the government may follow Germany by specifying minimum standards for safety features such as lights, reflectors, bells and brakes. Some cities also require both adults and children to wear helmets when riding e-scooters.

In the UK, Bikeability is an established training course for those who take up cycling. A similar scheme for those using e-scooters may be valuable, alongside online and in-app resources and some operators are providing this. Driver education on how to share the roads with e-scooters and other new forms of transport is also important. The highway code will need to change to provide guidance on how e-scooters and other road users can safely share space.

Public benefit or hazard?

Parking is also an issue. E-scooters need to be left somewhere between journeys, and their convenience is dependent on a certain flexibility of pick up and drop off. Scooters that are inconsiderately parked or abandoned are unsightly and obstructive. They can also deter people from using public space and can be a serious impediment to people with limited mobility.

E-scooter companies have tried different approaches to addressing thefts and inappropriate parking, including asking people to lock them and sounding alarms. Geofencing – where operators use GPS technology to limit precisely where a scooter can be ridden or parked – can be used to stop users leaving scooters where they cause an obstruction.

Read more: Can e-scooters solve the 'last mile' problem? They'll need to avoid the fate of dockless bikes

It is also important to consider the implications of e-scooters for public health in the UK. Industry claims that e-scooters provide low intensity workouts may be plausible. However, the UK sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, has raised concerns that e-scooters may replace walking trips and therefore have a negative impact on activity levels. Equally, heavy on-pavement scooter use means people are less keen to walk.

E-scooters can be considered an answer to the problem of the “last mile”: that final part of a public transport journey from station to destination that feels too far to walk. This means they can help people take other forms of public transport, by providing a link between a station or bus stop and a place of work, for instance. Even with their short range, then, they could help reduce longer car journeys. A further potential benefit is that, where companies are willing, use data can be shared with local authorities to help make improvements to infrastructure and transport systems.

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