Are City Governments Ruining the E-Scooter Fad?

After hitting city streets in the last few years, electric scooters (e-scooters) have gained popularity as novel and convenient urban mobility devices, servicing last-mile journeys.

They have appealed to the environmentally conscious as effective micro-mobility modes of transport that can provide cost-effective and time-efficient alternatives to passenger cars. So why have governments tightened their grip on the two-wheelers?

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San Francisco one of the first to take a tougher stance

Back in March 2018, after three companies, Bird, Lime and Spin released their e-scooter share schemes overnight in San Francisco, mixed reactions surfaced from residents and city authorities. While some saw this as a convenient way to bypass local traffic and a more cost-effective way to travel than ride-hailing, others viewed the two-wheelers as a nuisance. Hundreds of complaints were issued, with some throwing e-scooters into rubbish bins and others setting them on fire or even smearing them with faeces.

After banning e-scooters in May 2018, the local government of San Francisco passed a law, requiring firms to apply for a permit should they wish to operate an e-scooter share scheme. Twelve firms applied, including Bird and Lime, two of the largest and most well renowned providers of electric scooter share schemes. To their dismay, only Scoot and Skip were granted permits. The latter two made the effort to liaise with city officials prior to launching their electric scooter schemes. Others, most notably Lime, and Bird did not originally apply for a permit and as such lost the trust of local authorities.

While initially capping the total number of e-scooters to 1,250 under a 12-month pilot program, in April 2019, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) suggested Scoot and Skip could double their existing fleet of e-scooters only if they could increase their coverage to low-income users through discount programs. According to SFMTA, the demographic most likely to use e-scooters are white males earning over USD100,000 per year.

Cluttered walkways and safety bring further need for regulation

Unlike the numerous bicycle share-schemes such as Vélib’ in Paris and Santander Cycles in London, which involved designated docking stations, e-scooter share schemes are dockless, with users being free to park in essentially any public space within specified boundaries. While this has added flexibility and convenience to riders, it has led to chaos with e-scooters littering walkways, creating tripping hazards and blocking footpaths.

The e-scooter craze has not sidestepped the issue of safety either, with countless reports of people getting either hit by scooters, users falling off or being involved in car collisions. The tragic death of the YouTube star, Emily Hartridge, 35, who collided with a truck whilst riding an e-scooter was a wake-up call to the potential risks the mobility device can bring.

According to a study by Rutgers University, facial and head injuries tripled over the decade to 2018 from micro-mobility transport modes, which further ignited the need for greater oversight of e-scooters.

Take back control!

Free market economists normally view regulation as an unnecessary burden on business enterprise. While this holds true to a certain extent, providing adequate measures to ensuring the safety of people cannot be undermined.

Outright bans can be deemed heavy-handed and a tax on innovation, while a laissez faire approach will only lead to further chaos for both pedestrians and road users. Knee jerk reactions by the Swedish Transport Agency such as the call to ban electric scooters from bicycle lanes after the death of a man in May 2019 is also uncalled for.

Indeed, governments have an important role to play as the middlemen between businesses and consumers and in doing so exert a certain level of control to ensure both parties make the necessary efforts to comply with rules and regulations.

For example, San Francisco’s decision to rid its city of scooters and then to gradually reintroduce them with rules and guidelines provides a perfect example of how governments can make their voices heard and wield their powers.

Safety awareness programs, speed restrictions and continued improvements in infrastructure can help appease the interests of governments, consumers and businesses. How governments grapple with e-scooters remains to be seen, as additional legislation will be needed to ensure their safety and their place in urban mobility.

For more information, please visit: Urban Mobility: What the Future Holds for Cities