Having swept through the USA, and now available on a dockless hire basis in Paris and in at least four German cities, e-scooters have much to offer. In the States, they are seen as a solution to the 'last mile problem' (walking, of course, being out of the question). But here in Britain, they are illegal on both roads and pavements. We are missing out on the joy of travelling at 15mile/hour for say £1/trip. And we are spared/deprived (depending on your view-point) another part of the gig economy – free-lancers sweeping up used scooters each evening at 8pm to get them off the streets, re-charging them and getting them back in position next day in front of shops that have agreed to host them.
Along with the widely discussed leap of the digital age – autonomous vehicles – e-scooters don't fit easily onto today's highway system. You can buy one outright for £400+, but their only legal use is on private property. Increasingly, however, you will see them being used as part of the daily commute. University Campuses offer perhaps the best potential controlled application area.
Wired magazine writer Emily Wright asked last month whether "smart infrastructure will save us from our dumb cities", but none of the eight solutions in her article tackled that inescapable challenge of producing smooth, segregated right of ways that e-scooters need. Think how hard it has been to inject cycle super-highways into London; think of how awful road surfaces are for cycling in general; now magnify the problem for scooters which have wheels unable to mount even a half-height kerb.
Under California law, riders of motorized scooters must be at least 16 years old, licensed drivers, wearing a helmet and not riding the scooters on sidewalks — all things that operator dockless hire Bird cannot control.
It's not that the intentions of the booming scooter hire companies (Bird started in Southern California, Lime in Northern California) are malign. Bird CEO and founder, Travis Vanderzanden, told CNN: "People have been trying to find ways to get Americans out of cars for a long time, and we think Bird can have a big impact." As Sustrans points out, 56% of trips under 5 miles in England are made by car, 33% by foot and only 2% by bike. E-scooters have a range of 10-20 miles on a single charge.
Besides not fitting in, the other downside is the loss of health benefits from walk and cycle alternatives. So a good policy would be one that targets short car trip travel, and doesn't detract from dedicated cycle routes (a mode with which e-scooters are highly compatible, although no doubt users will be subject to tribal disdain).
Three weeks ago, the 18-month-old, San Francisco Bay Area-based electric scooter rental company, Lime, joined forces with the ride-hailing giant Uber, which is investing $335 million in the company and planning to promote Lime in its mobile app, describing it as "another step towards our vision of becoming a one-stop shop for all your transportation needs". Mobility as a Service advocates will be excited by the opportunities to mix modes.
Meanwhile, back in southern California where it all kicked off last year, the city of Los Angeles Transportation Department (LADOT) in June issued a cease-and-desist letter to Bird directing them to "remove any and all vehicles that you have in the City of Los Angeles immediately. Yet, for now, e-scooters remain in many communities on the west side of Los Angeles, and LADOT is proposing a set of regulations that would apply to dockless shared devices: e-scooters, e-bikes, and bike-share. Is there an ambitious city authority here that would like to follow suit?