London, held back by a UK-wide ban, has been too slow to embrace e-scooters. Now there is an opportunity to accelerate their use. Transport for London and the boroughs should seize it.
As Londoners start the bumpy road back to ‘normal’ they need transport options that are socially distant, affordable, convenient and which don’t take up too much road space. They should also be zero or low carbon, lest we forget the other looming crisis, climate.
Of course, bikes, and even e-bikes fit the bill well. But e-scooters should too be part of the mix. They can share the same road space. They work for whole journeys, or segments, whether part of a shared scheme, or privately owned. The government has just given permission for transport authorities and councils to start piloting – Transport for London and the boroughs should seize the opportunity.
Car use and air pollution in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic, has already reverted to pre-coronavirus levels. While public transport use is discouraged, worse looms for London. Unless, somehow, we make other non-car options more attractive. Temporary bike lanes are starting to spring up, aided by mayoral, government, and now even RAC support. So far this argument has been stoked, and won, by an energetic cycling lobby. Despite these changes, as the lockdown eases, Londoners may not be persuaded and instead head towards their cars.
So we need to make the most of every tool available to encourage people to opt to use this new infrastructure and avoid clogging our roads. The better the new lanes – safe, permanent, well designed, well connected – the better. Those alone will entice many reluctant cyclists. Breakthroughs in motor and battery technologies, coupled with smartphones and Internet of Things wizardry now make possible all manner of micro-electric vehicles. E-bikes offer greater range and are more inclusive than regular bikes, but they haven’t taken off in London as much as in many European cities. They are very expensive, far more than £1000 in most cases, and so also a target for theft. The authorities could offer grants.
Better, perhaps, are e-scooters. Though e-scooters are currently illegal in the UK on roads and pavements, they have crept into the London street scene, because they are affordable to many (£300-£600), and users like them. Typically top speed is around 15 mph and ranges up to 30 miles. And they are usually small and light, a crucial advantage over bikes for commuters, so they can be easily carried onto to a train and stored safely at home or in the workplace.
Innovative firms like Bird and Lime offer shared e-scooters across America and Europe. In London there has been only one trial of a shared scooter scheme, in the Olympic Park. In March the government announced four more pilots outside London, and on Saturday expanded this to ‘all local areas’. Shared, and probably all, e-scooters could be legal now as early as June.
Historically, Transport for London and the Department for Transport have been set against e-scooters, ostensibly on safety grounds. But in truth, we have just failed to adapt. Transport regulators, perhaps blinded by the lure of autonomous cars, which have failed to materialise, have missed a real transport revolution.
Transport now should be green, take up minimal road space, and be active where possible. And, for now, it should enable social distancing. E-scooters tick all four boxes, especially with a rapidly decarbonising electricity supply. What’s more, they can be deployed as fleets of shared vehicles, reducing the entry cost to all. So London should seize on this opportunity, embrace new pilots, and be at the forefront of finding a way to bring this entirely new class of personal vehicles into use.
Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter.