The use of e-scooters is becoming increasingly more popular, particularly in busy cities; with more than 100 hire schemes in operation worldwide. It is estimated the global market for shared e-scooter rides could reach $50 billion by 2025. However legal and regulatory issues are beginning to manifest as this burgeoning technology develops.
In the UK it is currently illegal to ride an e-scooter on a public road, cycle lane or pavement. However, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic the government is seeking to fast-track e-scooter trials to help mitigate reduced public transport capacity. The Transport Secretary has described the UK as being “on the cusp of a transport revolution” with the government currently consulting on urgent legislation to allow trials to commence more rapidly and in more areas than initially planned. The Department of Transport states, “E-scooters could be a fast and clean way to travel that eases the burden on the transport network and allows for social distancing”.
Proposals for e-scooter trials
To enable trials, local e-scooter companies will provide e-scooters for hire on the street in England, Scotland and Wales. Only selected rental e-scooters will be allowed in the trials to ensure they take place in a safe and controlled way. Originally four areas were chosen for the trials, but the plan is to now “enable trials of rental e-scooters in several areas around the country”. Expanding the trials to a greater cross-section of society will assist in ascertaining likely demand, usage and safety issues.
Privately owned e-scooters will remain illegal to use in public, even if used in a designated trial area. However given the increased (illegal) usage of e-scooters, we anticipate private e-scooter owners will continue to use their own scooters outside of the trial setting, raising the need for improved enforcement in this area.
Proposed regulatory changes
During the trial, e-scooters will continue to be classed as motor vehicles and therefore insurance and a driving licence will be required. It is recognised, however, that existing regulations require amendment so the trials will be representative of how e-scooters may operate in the future. The proposal is to regulate e-scooter trials in a similar way to electrically-assisted pedal cycles (EAPCs). Regulations will need to carefully ensure public safety whilst not stifling innovation and demand.
In the US, where app-enabled e-scooter sharing services are already popular, some cities and local regulators require e-scooter companies to have permits. They also restrict when and where e-scooters can be operated, and recommend users wear helmets and follow the traffic safety laws.
Legalising e-scooters in the UK will create more transport options for commuters, particularly for 'last mile' journeys. However, it is important that public safety remains at the forefront, especially given some users will have little experience of using e-scooters. In the US many crashes have been caused by the user’s lack of skill or co-ordination, or because of unfamiliarity with controls.
E-scooters will be defined as a motor vehicle designed to carry one person standing up, with only one electric motor, a maximum weight of 35kg and maximum speed of 12.5mph.
The speed limit of 12.5mph is in line with France, Germany and Denmark, but as the speed limit for EAPCs is 15.5mph, in the government's micro-mobility consultation views will be sought on whether this higher speed limit is more appropriate. EAPCs are fitted with an electric motor that automatically switches off at speeds above 15.5mph. However, it is possible for engines to be modified and speeds increased. Some e-scooters can reach speeds of 30mph, raising concerns that should e-scooters be legalised users may not abide by the limit and potentially put themselves and other road users at risk.
Rules for users
During the trial, users will be required to have a provisional driving licence and motor insurance, which will be provided by the rental company. This is an appropriately cautious approach ensuring protection for users, whilst safety concerns are assessed in the trial.
To allow the maximum possible number of people to participate, formal training and testing will not be required. Helmets are recommended but not mandatory. Whilst this will allow a more casual approach to the use of e-scooters it also raises safety concerns, especially given users’ likely lack of experience in operating an e-scooter and the relatively poor safety record to date.
Given the aim is to regulate e-scooters in a similar manner to EAPCs, if e-scooters are legalised, they may not have to be insured, although this will likely depend on the outcome of the trials. There have been calls for users to have insurance in place to ensure any damage caused to others is covered. It has been argued that e-scooters should be categorised as a motor vehicle that requires a Road Traffic Act compliant motor insurance policy, which would ensure victims are appropriately compensated.
It has also been suggested that whilst insurance should be mandatory it could be possible for a specific form of insurance to be bought for e-scooters, as given the speed of an e-scooter is significantly lower than a car, weighs far less, and there are no passengers, it may not be necessary to enforce the same limits of insurance as is required for a car. It is to be hoped that all these issues are properly considered as part of the trial.
E-scooter companies operating sharing schemes in the US require users to agree to a waiver relieving the companies of liability. Responsibility for any damages is therefore likely to fall to the rider, and their existing motor policies are not likely to cover the use of e-scooters. Add-ons to these existing policies could be an option for consideration by the industry, if the trials indicate insurance should be mandatory.
Use on the road
During the trial e-scooters will be allowed to travel on the roads and in cycle lanes and tracks, but not on pavements. This follows the general consensus amongst supporters of e-scooters who argue they should be legalised for use on roads and cycle paths, but should not be permitted on pavements.
Even if they are only made legal on roads and cycle paths, disability campaigners are concerned e-scooters will be used on pavements and create an additional hazard for them to negotiate.
E-scooters are however a popular option for others. The London Cycle Campaign has called for e-scooters to be made legal on cycle tracks (but not pavements), and in doing so would create “a cleaner, low carbon alternative to cars and buses for those who can’t or don’t want to cycle”.
Consultation on micro-mobility
The government is currently consulting on micro-mobility vehicles, flexible bus services and mobility as a service. Opinions and evidence are sought on whether micro-mobility vehicles, such as e-scooters, should be permitted on roads, and how (and if) regulation should change to legally allow such vehicles on the road.
The Department of Transport’s view is that micro-mobility vehicles “could offer benefits for individuals and society” but it is acknowledged that there is relatively little evidence on the subject. In allowing micro-mobility vehicles on the road the correct balance “between maximising the benefits they offer and keeping road users safe” must be found. The expedited trials are likely to inform future regulation in this area.
For e-scooters to be a success if legalised, user and public safety needs to be of paramount importance. If e-scooters are to be encouraged as an alternative mode of transport, either as greener travel or to reduce the numbers using public transport in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, then regulation needs to be balanced carefully. Since the UK lockdown pollution has drastically reduced and with more people now returning to work, road users are looking at alternative greener forms of transport, that they can take alone to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
The expansion of the e-scooter trials should enable the government to consider the legislation and regulatory requirements to make e-scooters a success on UK roads.