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A new ‘micromobility’ ecosystem: In support of e-scooters

Not every new technology works in the way it was intended, so it’s right to be wary about new kid on the block, e-scooters. But the pros seem to outweigh the cons, Rob Whitehead argues in this blog.

Pursuing solutions to the climate emergency while also managing the ongoing coronavirus crisis may rightly push us to consider technical innovations that might help, like e-scooters. There are some cautionary tales of failed enviro-technologies we need to learn from, but they shouldn’t stop us from innovating. 

Who didn’t feel a certain smugness when they first installed a dual-flush toilet? Turns out, it was a dud. Too leaky. We were promised new and better. We just got new. The same story is emerging around plug-in hybrid cars (PHEVs). New! And better! Not so it seems, at least according to campaign group Transport and Environment. CO2 emissions are nearly three times worse than official figures, because drivers don’t re-charge and the cars fire up the main engine too often. As PHEVs followed hybrids, so dockless bikes came in the heels of London’s docked bikes. Services like Ofo and Mobike seemed to hold much promise for growing cycling in the city. But the clutter, vandalism and under-management of these schemes quickly earned black marks across city authorities, and with Londoners.  

Of course then we’re right to be wary when new technologies, and products, come along touting their planet-saving credentials. So, to e-bikes and, most topically, e-scooters. On the face of it these new vehicles could provide new options for journeys of up to 10 miles that are lower carbon, healthier than sitting in a car, have negligible impact on air quality, take up little space on the road and can be safe to use. What’s not to like?

I now have experience riding bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters, and I’ve read a lot of the latest research. This is my top level take across the key areas…

Buying an e-scooter is remarkably cheap, e-bikes not so. Middle of the UK market is about £350, and £2,000 respectively. Embodied carbon is not negligible, but pretty low so lifetime carbon is far more driven by usage, unlike cars. 

Privately owned e-bikes and e-scooters are incredibly cheap to run, and have very low carbon emissions per mile. For shared schemes like Voi, Bird etc. costs are far higher, both in price and emissions, because of fleet servicing and worse user behaviour.  

Rider risks seem lower than many fear. This is a pretty mature market in many cities and user demand remains strong despite some reports of high injury levels. In Stockholmwith over 12,000 e-scooters in play, there have been no serious injuries or deaths, according to the authorities. The Met Police are pushing for compulsory helmets for e-scooters, a condition unlikely to make any upcoming trial. Personally, the only perilous thing I’ve found has been indicating (which new bike riders also struggle with).  

On frequency of use, healthy scepticism is certainly due. No-one, bar the suppliers, wins if low carbon vehicles are bought but left unused in the garage or hallway. The jury here is very much out on owned vehicles. Here the shared operators have the edge. Real-time use monitoring, and tweaking deployment to grow usage part of their modus operandi.

So what journeys might be replaced? Here the evidence is very mixed, and evolving. There are good claims of lower car use, especially in North America. In London, with our extensive public transport, any shift could well follow Stockholm and mainly replace bus journeys.. Physical activity levels could drop. But even still there might be benefits. Overall emissions per km for private e-bikes and e-scooters easily beats all public transport according to ITF-OECD, and shifting passengers from buses creates space for others. So, overall a win? Perhaps so, at least in socially distanced times. 

Poor vehicle lifespans have been the root of much of the criticism aimed at e-scooter operators. But this rapidly innovating industry is quickly finding improvements. Privately owned vehicles look pretty sturdy already. I expect e-scooters like e-bikes will last years not months, even with heavy use. 

As to impact on non-users, the key seems to be clear, enforced rules. Pavement riding should be eliminated, although not all cities have followed this line. Most seem to accept e-scooters as a logical part of the a new ‘micromobility’ ecosystem, with few downsides, as long as shared operators find ways to keeping parking orderly. And new micromobility vehicle types will emerge that cater to a very wide variety of users, including the disabled, and others that currently might not see bikes or scooters as an option. 

Overall then, unlike the dual-flush loo, and PHEVs, these new technologies seem capable of living up to their promise. For this reason Centre for London is backing a new ‘London Micromobility Alliance’ which aims to push for better long-sighted regulation and management of e-scooters, e-bikes and whole micro-vehicle ecosystem. 

This piece was originally posted on Mind the Zag.

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Rob Whitehead is Director of Strategic Projects at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.