The e-bike/scooter revolution has taken cities completely by surprise. Photo: Portland Bureau of Transportation

In many cities like San Francisco and Paris you can hardly walk along the pavement without stumbling over an electric scooter, or e-scooter.

There are many operators – such as Spin, Bird (which recently raised US$150 million at a valuation of over US$1 billion), Jump Bike and Lime. Usain Bolt has just launched his own Bolt Mobility range of scooters in Paris and some US cities.

They all have the same business model and about the same cost: US$1 plus 15 cents per minute. They nip around at about 24 kilometres an hour, but some can go much faster.

Scooter wars

Since jumping onto the scene just 18 months ago, the explosion of their use has led to a backlash – dubbed variously on social media as Scootergeddon, Scooterpocalypse, or Scooter Wars.

In France, an association named APACAUVI (Philanthropic association against urban anarchy), has been formed by someone whose wife and baby were hit by an e-scooter to end the “anarchy in the streets”.

In San Francisco, following a series of deaths and casualties, they’ve been issuing parking tickets to illegally parked vehicles and taking them off the pavements.

E-scooter laws around the world

Throughout the US it’s up to individual cities to decide how to control them.

Manhattan has decided the streets are crowded enough already and will not permit them.

In Canada’s Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario there can only be ridden on private land, as in the UK, although some cities like Calgary are trialling pilots.

Whereas in North America you must be 18 or over, in cycle friendly Holland you can be 16 or over. There have been cases of collisions with cyclists since they compete for space on cycle lanes.

In Germany they’re legal on public roads but not on pavements and you can be as young as 14 but must wear a helmet.

They are all over the place in Brussels, Belgium, and in Italy they are popular on the streets of Rome, Florence and Pisa.

In the UK they are still illegal, like segways, except on private land. And Tulip Siddiq, the recently appointed transport secretary, is cagey about whether this will change.

In Japan you need a driving license, registration and everything else that applies to a motorbike or moped to use an e-scooter.

In New Zealand they’re okay below 300W in power and you don’t need a license or helmet, but you can’t ride them in bike lanes.

In China, although e-bikes must be registered and have a license plates, e-scooters are exempted from this. However they are banned on the roads in most cities because of serious accidents.

In Dubai, hired e-scooters are also banned on safety grounds, but you can ride your own, should you have one.

Cities in the United Arab Emirates are free to adopt their own rules on whether they can be used, just like in the States.

The same is true in Australia, where the law varies from state to state.

Here, Lime has popped up in Brisbane, when they can only be ridden on the pavement and you need a helmet; but again there have been accidents and the backlash has begun.

They are legal in Queensland only if they can go no faster than 25 kilometres an hour.

In Victoria it’s similar, but you must have a license and have registered the e-scooter.

New South Wales has copied the UK, making it okay only on private land.

Sydney has just finished some trials and is pondering whether to permit them.

The massive rise of e-scooters has made them victims of their own success

Many places are banning or severely curtailing them. Others are thinking twice about their introduction.

France has banned them on pavements from September 29, confining them to cycle lanes, with anyone flouting the law facing a fine of AU$220.

There are over 15,000 on the streets of Paris, and with scooters being able to reach hair-raising speeds of up to 37mph but riders not being compelled to wear helmets, which has resulted in some nasty accidents.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has made an agreement with ten e-scooter operators to regulate their use, citing the opinion of Christophe Najdovski, the transport deputy, that the city is saturated. “If we do nothing, in the next few months, we’ll have 30,000 or 40,000 scooters. It’s not tolerable,” she said.

If scooters are found blocking the pavement places must remove them within 12 hours or pay a fine of €100 (AUD$162) each.

Part of the problem is that, unlike e-bike hire schemes, the vehicles don’t require docking and can be left anywhere.

Operators are also being forced to share their data with the city authorities so that they can find out where they are and where they go and avoid being concentrated too much in the same place.

In return the municipality is providing 500 parking spaces for scooters, which must be insured.

The e-mobility revolution is here – deal with it

E-scooters are obviously fulfilling a need for citizens who want independence, freedom, speed, convenience, and don’t want to use an energy guzzling and probably polluting larger vehicle, or public transport that doesn’t take them where they want to go at the time they want to be there, let alone stop whenever they like to browse along the way.

The operators are fighting back against the backlash. Paloma Castro, Lime’s head of international communications, argues that the problem is not the scooters themselves but the riders.

“This is a question of civility and how we behave. It’s not just about the scooters, it’s a conversation we need to have as a society.”

He points out that e-scooters “are a revolution of urban mobility. It’s pretty obvious they’re here to stay.”

Lime (in which Uber is also an investor and which already has a fleet of over 1000 electric bikes in five London boroughs and Milton Keynes) has hired PR firms PHA Group and Headland to spruce up its image and paint Lime as “leaders in the e-bike and urban mobility sectors”.

Headland’s brief includes advocating legislative reform on dockless e-scooters.

“The benefits of e-scooters and e-bikes are clear. They have the potential to transform the way we get around, reducing congestion, cutting emissions and making active travel more accessible,” Headland associate director Gabriel Huntley said.

“These issues are rising to the top of the policy agenda and Lime can play a leading role in these debates, reflecting their philosophy of working collaboratively and in partnership with policymakers.”

Bird’s director of safety, Paul Steely White, has observed: “The number of injuries… amount to less than a fraction of one per cent of the total number of e-scooter rides taken worldwide.

“Car crashes kill more than one million people each year. And for every person cars kill on impact, many more lives will be cut short due in part to their devastating impact on our climate.”

Bird’s recent launch of a trial on private footways in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, was a lobbying tactic.

City authorities are playing catch-up. Britain’s Department for Transport is consulting on the topic.

In London, in the absence of e-scooter permits, operators are investing in e-bikes.

Uber’s Jump bikes are arriving in the British capital as in Berlin, Lisbon, Paris, and Brussels. Uber – more associated with cars then bikes – bought Jump for US$200 million (AUD$285.45 million) last April.

This revolution has taken cities completely by surprise

While banning e-scooters is the easy option, surely it is better to introduce them in a more controlled way?

License plates and parking spaces allow them to be easily tracked and tidily parked.

Since they rely on wi-fi to be hired, they can also be tracked in real time – their users too, allowing the riders to be traced if infringements are reported by place and time.

It’s not a technical impossibility for a dangerous driver to receive a summons via the same mobile phone whose app was used to register the ride.

Voi bucking the trend

Although there are many aggressive e-scooter operators, there is a European one doing things differently.

Voi, which recently raised US$30 million to expand throughout Europe, has scooters in 14 cities including Stockholm, Paris, Lisbon and Oslo. Since last August, over 400,000 users have taken over 750,000 rides across Europe.

It has a code of conduct in Stockholm to cooperate with city authorities to ensure its vehicles are used properly.

Its CEO, Fedrik Hjelm, said: “This distinctively Scandinavian approach to growth – based on dialogue, transparency, and sustainability – ensures we only enter markets where we’re actively wanted and have a genuine role to play, while always putting citizens at the heart of everything we do.”

Its website says: “We believe e-scooters can change how people move in our cities. And we want the transformation to happen in the right way—through innovation, open and transparent dialogue with cities and governments and by adapting to local needs.”

Sounds like it could be scooting in the right direction.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities.

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  1. Brought a 7kg, folding e-scooter a while ago. This was because it was a 30 min walk to the nearest high frequency bus service. The scooter time is about 1/3 walking time which makes using buses a lot more practical. Folded up the scooter is easy to carry on public transport which means that it can be used at both ends of the trip. Without the scooter commuting by car becomes a lot more attractive than public transport.
    The scooter is fitted with a speedometer and speed 3 level speed limiter. It also has regenerative braking that is strong enough to control speed down a reasonably steep slope.
    In terms of safety this scooter is, if anything, safer than my mountain bike. The scooter has the advantage of being easy to step off during emergencies or simply because the pedestrians are going too slow. Lightweight e-scooters should be subject to the same rules as bikes and be able to go where bikes go. There is also a case for light e-scooters to be allowed on paths in situations where bikes are not allowed.
    Scooters like the Lime scooters are much heavier, do not fold and are often being used for a quick burst of excitement in places where there is a lot of pedestrians wandering around. If they are going to be used for journeys and links with public transport they should have speedometers as well as speed limiters that prevent them driving too fast for circumstances. When they are being used for stunting or zooming around this should only happen in designated areas and not in mixed use areas. We need to have a close review of the rules and standards for e-scooters.

  2. Would it not make more sense for laws to be introduced before new technology is unleashed on society. In Madrid, Spain, at least one pedestrian has died after being knocked down by an electric scooter whilst walking on the pavement. Drones have also been sold to the general public before adequate regulations are in place. It seems that business interests are more important than public safety.