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As UK cities run their first trials of e-scooters, touted as a socially distanced alternative to public transport, hire firms and retailers are eyeing up a potentially large new market.
Last updated: 01 Dec 2020 7 min read
In recent years, electric scooters have experienced a remarkable boom in popularity, and are now a common sight on the streets and pavements of cities from Lima to Paris to Bangkok. Together with bike hire schemes, they add to the growing number of ‘micromobility’ options, which are seen as offering an alternative, environmentally friendly mode of transport, primarily for short-term self-service use.
All around the world, scooter hire firms, fuelled with venture capital, are competing for market share. Investors are watching the likes of Lime and Bird (from the US) and Voi, Circ, Flash and Tier (from Europe) to see if another Uber is about to happen.
The UK government was slow to regulate, but that hasn’t stopped people using scooters, and private sales are buoyant. Since 4 July, UK cities have been able to trial hire services. As urban residents wrestle with the pandemic and new ways of working, will the e-scooter evolve from its hipster roots to become a popular way of commuting and getting around town?
Globally – at least according to pre-coronavirus analyses – e-scooter sales are predicted to peak in 2025, mainly in the Asia-Pacific region, with a value of around £20bn.
“It’s difficult to predict what will happen in the UK, particularly with the Covid element at play,” says Nick Davies, research fellow in urban ecology at the University of Salford.
“Since April, private sales have increased 134%, but they are private sales. In Greater Manchester, our study on the Mobike scheme showed only a small percentage of the sample (approximately 2%) regularly use the bikes. The big question is whether people see scooters as a safer or more accessible option.”
East Asia dominates scooter manufacturing, though UK firms are beginning to get involved on the design front. New retail chains, selling brands such as Xiaomi and Inokim, are being established, on the basis that the market will open up soon. Xiaomi’s bestselling M365 model retails from around £380.
Until recently, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, London, was the only place in the UK where a rental e-scooter could be used legally. But at the end of June the UK government announced it was bringing forward trials originally planned for 2021 in response to the need for commuters to socially distance while travelling.
Since 4 July, cities could apply to trial battery-powered scooters limited to 15.5mph on roads, cycle lanes and tracks, but not pavements. Helmets are recommended, but not mandatory.
The first 12-month trial, in Middlesbrough, is using 50 electric scooters supplied by Ginger, a new UK start-up. Eventually 500 will be available across the Tees Valley. Many e-scooters are dockless but Ginger will use docks so that scooters are not left lying around. Ginger pilots Jacob Goonetillake says the target market is local commuters.
“It’s clear from deployments in Europe and the US that Silicon Valley-type companies focus heavily on the tourist market and often price the rental at a level that precludes local communities from accessing the schemes. We want to ensure scooters are deployed to serve local transport routes in the UK and are affordable for users to integrate into their daily travel routine.”
“E-scooters are not the golden solution to reducing CO2, but if they can reduce short car trips in cities, they can form part of a sustainable modal mix with cycling and walking” Nick Davies, research fellow in urban ecology, University of Salford
But only hire scooters can be used on these trials, making use of a private scooter illegal.
“The law on scooter use is a mess and needs a complete overhaul, which is why the scooter trials are so important,” says Tom McPhail, director of public affairs at Pure Electric, one of the UK’s largest e-bike and e-scooter retailers.
“We’re selling several thousand scooters a month, even though it isn’t currently legal to ride them on the public highway. We also know the legal situation is people’s number one concern when considering whether to buy a scooter.
“We need much better infrastructure too and this is going to take years to implement.”
For commuters, scooters can be most useful when combined with a public transport trip, typically for the ‘last mile’.
“Businesses are exploring using fleets of scooters as part of their decarbonisation strategy, alongside e-bikes, electric cars, public transport season tickets,” says McPhail. “Once legal, it’s reasonable to expect scooters would be covered by the Cycle to Work scheme, which would be popular with businesses and their employees.”
In cities such as Lisbon and Paris, there are large leisure and tourist markets. Lisbon had scooters from nine different operators last year in the central area, which were mainly used by tourists.
While there may be more homeworking in the future, and therefore less commuting, there’s already been a shift back towards office work. But e-scooters arguably serve a wider demand to reduce car use and ensure cities have cleaner, quieter and safer streets.
“The post-Covid picture is complex and difficult to predict,” says Davies. “Increases in homeworking since lockdown, if continued over a longer period of time, would alter the travel patterns on our roads with fewer public transport trips due to social distancing fears and potentially fewer car journeys.
“This theoretically plays into the hands of those promoting walking and cycling, and in the case of new mobilities such as e-scooters, there may be more space that is safer.
“The main obstacle would be the increased use of car journeys once all lockdown measures are gone.”
There have been serious, including fatal, accidents involving e-scooters around the world. One global survey recorded 29 deaths in 2019, including one in London. This is tragic but compares favourably with the many thousands who die while driving cars and motorcycles.
“With the sales and use of e-scooters increasing in the UK, Sustrans welcomes the Department for Transport’s decision to launch a rental trial and continue to review their legal status,” says Daniel Gillett, policy officer at the walking and cycling charity Sustrans.
“E-scooters have the potential to provide a useful addition to traveller choice and could help reduce congestion and improve air quality in urban areas, if they are used to replace journeys that might otherwise be made by car.
“However, e-scooters offer limited physical activity benefits so it is essential they do not go on to replace trips that would otherwise be walked, cycled, taken by kick scooters or by public transport. Increasing the number of active trips has the potential to prevent and manage over 20 chronic health conditions by building physical activity into daily activity.”
Meanwhile, the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) has raised concerns about the impact of e-scooters on the safety of those with visual impairments, who can find them difficult to see and hear, while similar dockless bike schemes have led to bicycles being left abandoned on the pavement, creating trip hazards.
E-scooter evangelists, however, see them as an integral part of a future ‘smart’ city of interconnected electric vehicles, available for short-term use, easy to recharge and good for the environment.
“They are an incremental step towards cleaner cities,” says Davies. “They are not the golden solution to reducing CO2, but if they can reduce short car trips in cities, they can form part of a sustainable modal mix with cycling and walking, making safer, more appealing streets for residents and visitors.
“Their success will rely on infrastructure changes,” he adds. “Something like 50% of space in cities is devoted to cars and this needs to be redistributed to safely incorporate more cycling, walking and other new modes – such as scooters.”
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