In the UK, electric scooters (and other personal light electric vehicles, such as Segways, skateboards or self-balancing unicycles) are legally classed as motor vehicles. This means that it's against the law to operate one on the footway (pavement), and to operate one legally on the road the scooter would require registration as a motorcycle, and the rider would need a driving licence, insurance, number-plates, motorcycle helmet and so on. Effectively, this has meant that such scooters should only be used on private land.
On the other hand, as recent improvements in battery and related technology have lowered their cost, combined with a lack of enforcement, these vehicles have become increasingly popular as a form of urban transport. As cyclists it's easy to understand the appeal: Just like cycling, these vehicles are a convenient, low-cost alternative to driving for journeys of up to a few miles. Unlike public transport, they take you door-to-door at any time of day or night, and their compact size makes them easy to carry or store securely at your destination, or take on the train or bus (in a way that can compare favourably to all but the most expensive folding bicycles).
The government recognise this, and seeing them as a potential tool for reducing our dependence on urban car-use, set up a trial as part of their Future of Transport programme. Under the trial, electric scooters conforming to a particular specification could be legally operated on the road as part of regulated hire schemes. This was stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with schemes rolling out in several locations around the UK over the summer of 2020.
Voi scheme launched in Birmingham and Coventry in September 2020
In Birmingham, a contract for operating a dockless e-scooter hire scheme was awarded to Voi, a Swedish company with experience operating scooter hire in cities across Europe.
Soon after the launch, I went to try out one of the scooters, using a free trial code provided by Voi to attract new users.
Having installed the Voi app, I could scan the QR code on the stem of the scooter I wanted to use. The first thing I had to do was take photographs of both sides of my driving licence. Under the terms of the trial, they're limiting availability to people with a full or provisional licence with a category Q moped entitlement. After a short delay to upload and process the images, the scooter was enabled for use.
The scooters have a bracket for holding your mobile phone so you can use it for navigation. I found that the bracket was a very tight fit on my Motorola G7 unless I removed it from its protective case, and that the bracket was not securely attached to the handlebars. I opted to put my phone in my bag instead.
Folding up the little kickstand, the scooter can be wheeled and is ready for use. The handlebar controls are simple and intuitive: Right and left hand brake levers operate the front and rear brakes respectively, as per the UK convention for bicycle brakes. A thumb throttle is present on the right hand. There are no gears, and a twist-operated bicycle bell is provided on the left. Beyond that, a series of LEDs indicate the scooter's hire status, battery level, and whether the you are in a speed-limited area. The scooters are equipped with 'be-seen' lighting, which activates automatically with the start of the hire period.
My first observation was that the Voi scooter seems much sturdier than typical privately-owned ones, and it was surprisingly heavy. It must have a fairly substantial battery inside. To ride the scooter, you must first get it rolling with a kick or two; as a safety feature the throttle does nothing when the wheels are stationary. This took a bit of getting used to, but I was able to do so without embarrassment, and once the motor engages, it accelerates promptly, up to a maximum speed of 15mph. I found the steering extremely wobbly, more so than a Brompton bicycle, but presumably this is normal for such scootery things (of which I have no real experience).
I spent about 20 minutes riding it around an assortment of Central Birmingham's finest challenges to wheeled users: The wheels cope surprisingly well with potholes, dropped kerbs and the like. I was impressed. While there's some suspension to protect your wrists from getting too much of a pounding, this only affects the handlebars - I found the repeated shock to my heels was unpleasantly novel: On a bicycle, even when freewheeling out of the saddle on locked knees, your ankles provide some suspension effect, which you don't get here. I crossed the tramlines a couple of times, and they didn't give me any more concern than my bike with 40mm Marathons. I'm sure you could still come a cropper if you tried to cross at too shallow an angle.
The braking performance is reminiscent of TfL (Transport for London) hire bikes; the feel and modulation at the lever is poor, but they do a reasonable job of stopping the scooter. I'm not sure whether the motor is being used for regenerative braking or not, but the scooter decelerates much quicker than a bike when you release the throttle, so you don't need to use the brakes very much anyway.
I was carrying my Garmin GPS receiver, which informs me that my maximum speed was 25.2kph, with a cruising speed a little under 24kph. This dropped to about 17-18kph climbing Hill Street. Some areas (in this case the pedestrianised streets in the city centre where cycling is permitted) are geofenced as 'Slow Zones' - the speed limiting automatically drops to about 6.5kph here, which is a fast walk. This is quite disconcerting when travelling uphill, as you feel that it's on the cusp of stall speed, which might be problematic for those with less good balance. You also get glared at by pedestrians, who appear not to be able to work out whether to fear that you're about to crash into them, or wonder why you're riding so unexpectedly slowly. Due to the foibles of GPS, you can't really anticipate exactly when it will leave the geofence, so the first thing you know is a sudden burst of acceleration.
I covered 3.7km in about 20 minutes, draining the battery by about 10%. When the batteries are low, or a fault is reported, a Voi technician comes around in an electric van to service them.
Parking is a simple matter of pressing the park button on the phone app. You have the option of either locking the scooter temporarily (keeping the hire period running), or releasing it for others to use. When you park, the app takes a photo of the scooter as you've left it. This seems like a good idea, as it ought to discourage antisocial parking, and protects the previous user should it subsequently get kicked-in, stolen or hoiked into the canal by vandals.
In summary, it's a perfectly competent means of urban transport. Personally I prefer the larger wheels and stability of a traditional bicycle, but would be happy to use a scooter if it were convenient to do so for a given journey.
Nearly six months later, the scheme has been expanded to a few miles around the city centre, including the areas served by the A38 and A34 cycleways, on which the scooters are a now a regular sight. The scooters seem to be well-used, particularly amongst the student population, and I've seen very little reckless or pavement riding.
However there do seem to be some issues, and I'll hopefully cover the main ones here:
- Cost - At time of writing, the scooters cost £1 to unlock, and 20p per minute for the duration of the hire period. Alternatively, you can use them as much as you like for £10/day or £40/month. This seems expensive compared to public transport, though it may be a lot more convenient for some journeys. It's only slightly more expensive than the new West Midlands Cycle Hire bikes.
- Needing a driving licence is a huge barrier, as fewer and fewer people young people are bothering with the cost of driving lessons and passing a test when they don't anticipate owning a car. Some disabled people aren't allowed a driving licence but are able to cycle or use a scooter safely, and they are also excluded by this requirement.
- "It's not cycling!" - This seems to be an objection from some parts of the cycling community. No, it isn't cycling, but neither are car-driving or bus-riding. Personal light electric vehicles are efficient, non-polluting, take up little space and reduce traffic congestion. They're also a safe way to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. But perhaps more importantly, the difference between a scooter rider and a cyclist is pretty much only the power source. They have the same vulnerability to motor vehicles and sensitivity to road surface quality as cyclists, and create more demand for high-quality cycling infrastructure. With their speed legally limited to the same levels as electric assist cycles, it's no coincidence that scooter users behave in traffic in more or less the same ways that bicycle riders do. A scooter rider also has the same exposure to weather as a cyclist or pedestrian, and it seems to me that the transition from using a scooter to using a bicycle is much simpler than from car to bicycle.
- "It's dangerous!" - A common objection from pedestrians, particularly some disabled people. I'd argue that the scooters are no more dangerous than pedal cycles, which are also silent, often travel at speeds much higher than the 15mph maximum speed of these scooters, and are sometimes used incompetently or inconsiderately (particularly by people frustrated by a lack of high quality infrastructure who chose to ride illegally on the pavement). A lot of this is cultural, and I'm sure there are depressingly large numbers of people who'd happily see pedal cycles banned along with them.
- There's nothing you can wear on one that doesn't look slightly ridiculous, particularly if you're over the age of 25 or so. That said, the sort of clothes that work well for scooter riding in bad weather are the same as those that work well for walking, and most people have those already - you don't have the same issues with clothes potentially getting tangled in wheels and chain, jackets not being long enough at the back, or trousers being worn away by saddles as you do on a bike. The geometry of the scooter means your feet are protected from spray from the front wheel. If it's cold, bring gloves. Helmet optional.
- But by far the greatest issue is the dockless nature of the hire scheme...
The problem with dockless hire
The problem with dockless hire (whether it be scooters, bicycles or even cars) is that the vehicles get left in random places. This reduces costs for the scheme operator, as they don't have to get permission for and install physical docks in order for the scheme to be useful. It can be convenient for the users, as they can just abandon the vehicle at the end of their journey, but the flip side of that is that you can't rely on them being available at any specific place.
In the case of dockless hire cycles and scooters, the place they nearly always get left is the pavement. Indeed the Voi app specifically instructs its users that this is where the scooters should be parked. Unfortunately, many pavements are narrow, with barely adequate space for pedestrians as it is, without additional clutter from parked scooters. This problem is greatly exacerbated when the scooters are parked inconsiderately. The photo above shows a parked Voi scooter, in combination with a row of wheelie-bins (which are themselves a huge issue, if somewhat beyond Push Bikes' remit) effectively reducing a pavement to about half its usable with - a pushchair or mobility scooter user might struggle to fit through the gap, especially if there were other pedestrians around.
In addition, dockless hire scooters and bikes pose a tripping hazard, particularly to visually impaired pedestrians who may not know they are there. Cane and guide dog users may struggle to make sense of the obstruction, and risk walking into handlebars that stick out beyond the body of the scooter at ground level. It's common for scooters and bikes to fall over (or be knocked over deliberately by vandals), greatly increasing the size of the hazard.
Frustratingly, many Voi users in Birmingham park them with little regard for other pavement users, even when there is plenty of space available to park them somewhere out of the way, as shown in this photograph of one in the middle of a wide expanse of pavement at the University end of the A38 cycleway:
The solution is to use docks. This doesn't have to be an expensive physical structure like those we're familiar with for the TfL and West Midlands Hire Bikes. Designated painted bays, enforced using the hire scheme's existing GPS technology, are sufficient to ensure that the vehicles are in a predictable place.
For more on this subject, see the RNIB's guidelines to e-scooter operators.
Looking to the future
Strictly in the realms of personal opinion here, but I'm broadly in favour of the Voi scheme, and hope it proves viable in the long term, without undermining the West Midlands Hire Bikes. I hope they'll be able to move to a geo-dock based system, or at least be much stricter about enforcing their users' parking behaviour.
More widely, I hope that the government decides to legalise personal light electric vehicles for general private use, and that those with bicycle-like steering and braking dynamics are regulated to the same power and speed limits as electric assist pedal cycles (things like skateboards and unicycles might need a lower speed limit for safety). This is important because other road users will become familiar with a consistent level of performance from light electric vehicles, and because it would be a public health own-goal if people were discouraged from using e-bikes because scooters were faster.
If such scooters are legal to operate on the road, then manufacturers will have an incentive to make higher quality products; as it stands they are mostly perceived as expensive toys rather than serious transport.
I see personal light electric vehicle users and cyclists as natural allies, and - like cyclists and car drivers - they're often the same people.