The UK remains one of the last territories in the world to legalise e-scooters, recently the Department for Transport have been heavily lobbied by scooter-share operators, desperate to tap into the opportunities of London, to no avail. But why?
Firstly, in case you haven’t tried one yet, scooters are an important new mode of transport because they appeal to a wide demographic of people. Despite decent efforts to encourage more walking and cycling, there are just not enough people switching away from car travel, and air pollution from vehicles is still on the rise. We are in a situation where roads are congested and polluting, often clogged with single-occupant cars or taxis. Scooters appeal to people of different ages, fitness levels and physical abilities. They are easy, fun and most importantly they are an energy-efficient and clean way to move around a city. In the USA and Europe, the proliferation of e-scooters used in shared-transport schemes have already clocked up millions of journeys and the trend is growing at a far faster rate than cycle-share schemes. Without a doubt, e-scooters are here to stay.
So UK, what are we waiting for?
The UK, and in particular London is one of the most densely populated and congested cities in the world. The design of the streets is governed by medieval buildings and ancient routes, meaning the streets are extraordinarily narrow for a 21st-century volume of traffic. Light vehicles and public transit are the only way our future cities will be able to cope with the growing population, and more importantly air-quality targets.
In terms of e-scooters (and bikes for that matter), there is little space to ride. And in particular, in London, it is the job of the Department for Transport to make sure any new mode is deemed safe. The problem is the lack of space for segregated slow lanes, the pavements are often at full capacity in the city centre, as are the roads.
So where can I ride my e-scooter safely?
If and when e-scooters become legalised in the UK, I am certain on one thing. Electric scooters must share the space on the road with bicycles. This means that any law regulating e-scooters must be suitable for the terrain, conditions and speed. The design of the e-scooter will determine whether it is fit to share the space with a bike, so here are the top things to consider.
Wheel-size. Is bigger better?
In the UK, bikes must be roadworthy which means the design must be suitable to ride safely over cracks in the road, small potholes, manhole covers and drains. It is widely agreed within the bike industry that 16-inch wheels with pneumatic tyres is the minimum size for safe road cycling, respected tyre manufacturers don’t even bother making tyres any smaller. It can be proven using simple geometry, that a 16-inch wheel can roll over uneven terrain, and the bigger the better. Anything with a wheel smaller is likely to cause ‘tripping’ on a normal road in the UK.
How fast can I ride?
With the average speed of a cyclist around 10-16mph, the e-scooter must be of a design that maintains good stability and control at that speed in order to stay with the flow of a cycle lane. It is easy to limit speed on a small electric motor, and in Europe, the e-scooter speed limit started at 15.5mph (25kph) but more recently in Germany, they have specified 12.5mph (20kph) and the lowering of the speed limit has been well received. In Australia, where in some states you can cycle on the footpath, e-scooters are now allowed on the footpath but with 9mph (15kph) limit, and on the road or cycle lane at 15.5mph (25kph). The law around speed and place to ride varies around the world, and also regionally within countries. So any rider must check local legislation before riding. A recent study by Public Health and Transportation dept in Austin Texas found that 30% of scooter-related injuries were because riders were travelling too fast, and 86% of injuries were caused by the rider losing control of the scooter for one reason or another (rather than the impact from a motor vehicle). It could be concluded that the compact design of most scooters (those with 8” wheels) are not suitable for their speed capabilities when used in public spaces. However, each city will present its own separate challenges to speed and space to ride.
What design features offer the best stability?
There are a number of design considerations that give stability, and it all comes down to geometry. A longer wheelbase is essential for a stable and comfortable ride, especially at speed. A long wheelbase allows for the centre of gravity to be further back from the front wheel, and hitting any bumps can be more easily managed. A long wheelbase and larger pneumatic wheels can prevent front impact ‘tripping’ that so often cause a small-wheeled scooter rider to injure themselves. Again, the larger wheel is critical because of something known as ‘deck drop’. Deck drop is when the load (ie. Your feet) can stand on a deck that’s lower than the wheel axles. This design feature adds significant amounts of stability for the rider. Steering is more stable if the scooter has a wider bar and a stem for a larger steering circle. Head tube angle and rake create trail – a crucial element of bicycle engineering that helps the vehicle to travel in a straight line. All are factors in a well-designed scooter. Beware! Many e-scooters are badly designed, with narrow bars, no rake, high deck, small wheels and no deck-drop, and certainly are more difficult to control at speed than a 16” scooter like one from British brand Swifty Scooters.
Weatherproof – the UK is wet!
As with a bike, tyre specification must be suitable for wet conditions. Any scooter with hard PU wheels are not suitable in wet conditions. Large pneumatic wheels 16” and above with bicycle grade tyres (quality rubber composite, grip and pressure) are a must. Check for front and rear brakes, that must also be tested in wet conditions. Mudguards are also advisable!
Brakes, lights, reflectors and markings
Any e-scooter that is fit to ride UK streets must align with the rules written for bicycle safety in the Highway Code. That means front and rear brakes. For riding at night, there must be suitable lights front (white) and rear (red). Reflectors front (white) and rear (red) and side. Markings must clearly state manufacturers safety standard compliance and max load weight. Motorists must be aware that it is not so easy to indicate direction with hand signals using a scooter.
Legal vulnerability when riding among motorists
This section is less about design, more about legislation. It is my view that the UK has to acknowledge that the use of scooters for personal transport can have a positive social, economic and environmental impact, and the UK needs to be providing comprehensive legal framework for scooter riders.
At the moment (2019) there are many people riding e-scooters in the UK, one can’t deny the appeal of the fun, convenient and environmentally friendly way to get around town, but without the legal framework, e-scooter riders are vulnerable.
In the event of an accident, whether it may be caused by the scooter rider or not, the scooter rider will always be on the back foot in any claim brought against them. Currently in the UK, riding an electric scooter anywhere (apart from private land with the landowner’s permission) will be considered an illegal activity.
It is insightful to look at how other countries approach transport law. For example, if you look at the Netherlands in comparison, there is some evidence that their ‘strict liability’ law has helped to create a culture where drivers are more careful and aware of other road users, like cyclists. The ‘strict liability’ law that was introduced in 1992, protects vulnerable road users from those in more powerful vehicles. Under the law, liability for crashes or accidents automatically lies with the more powerful road user, unless it can be proven beyond doubt that the vulnerable road user was at fault. As a result, Dutch drivers take greater caution around cyclists and pedestrians, making the roads a much safer place for all. The famous ‘dutch reach’ instruction in driving tests helps to prevent car-door collisions, this is a perfect example of how the legal framework exists in order to aid the growth of cycling and for the safety of vulnerable road users. Meanwhile, in Britain, just 31% of drivers involved in fatal collisions with cyclists were successfully convicted of ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ [between 2007-2017]
While the proliferation of suitable safety features in scooters used by fleet-operators can only improve, the above list is a good benchmark for consumers and fleet managers to use as a guide. The more people using light vehicles like scooters and bikes, the more investment and space can be given to the infrastructure. It’s chicken and egg!