Are Electric Scooters About to Become Legal in the UK?

Transport is changing.

How we move around has to change, a fact recognised by the recent Government report Future Mobility: Urban Strategy. Released in the summer of 2019, it sets out a vision for how we get around in busy cities like London. The days of relying on the car for urban transport are numbered but what is changing and why?

The car

model t car

The car became affordable to most working households from the 1950s onwards. The independence it offered was beyond anything we had seen before. We could go wherever, but more importantly, whenever we wanted.

Fast forward a few years and by the 1980s, the two-car household was common. With the liberation of women from the kitchen sink and into the workplace, the need for two cars became apparent.

Up until the 21st century, improvements in urban transport meant small, incremental changes to infrastructure such as by developing roads and public transport systems; more roads and railways were built, existing carriageways widened and ‘improved’ with minor changes in road layout.

But we can’t keep doing that. With issues surrounding air pollution in the city and the other pitfalls of congested streets, more roads is not the solution.

How does the electric scooter for commuting fit into the Urban Strategy vision for the future?

The electric scooter is divisive. Some see it as a nuisance with riders taking to the streets and pavement of the capital without a care for pedestrians and other road users. For others, the electric scooter is part of the solution. And it seems that the UK Government agree.

In its report, it talks of micro-mobility vehicles and how these can be trialled. Included in the definition of micro-mobility is the electric scooter.

There are many issues that need resolving when it comes to how we move around the capital. For example, the commute from the suburbs into the city is only one part of the daily commute. The first mile – the walk, bus ride or cycle to the tube station, for example – and the last mile, the stretch between the tube station and your workplace, are also an important element of how well we move around the city.

The assumption is that we ‘should’ walk. Or if it is a bit further and the pavements crowded, we ‘should’ cycle. The electric scooter is the solution to both the first and last mile of the commute.

What are the problems with introducing the electric scooter?

There are two significant barriers to introducing the electric scooter to the streets of London or any city or town in the UK…

1.    The law

donkey

Firstly, the Highway Act 1835 makes it illegal for anything else to be on the pavement other than pedestrians. The wording is strange but this 19th century law dictates that driving a mule (donkey!) as well as sheep along the pavement is illegal. Using this law, riding a bike on the pavement is illegal too, even if it is being ridden by a child.

Whilst some have championed this law as a reason why electric scooters should not be allowed, there are others who suggest that the law needs to catch up with modern technology.

In some ways, the government agrees, acknowledging that the safe trialling of micro-mobility transport, such as e-scooters is necessary to create a capital in which we can move around quickly and safely.  

2.    Attitudes

Change is unsettling for some but a great opportunity for others. In other words, there are winners and losers. On city pavements that are already crowded, introducing the electric scooter compounds the problem.

Riding them on the road is also illegal and yet riders are expected to follow the rules of the road. Accidents are thankfully rare but a recent tragic death in London followed by a serious accident between e-scooter and another vehicle a few days later have leant weight to the argument that ‘e-scooters are dangerous’.

Clearly, safety for e-scooter riders is important, just as it is for all other road users and pedestrians. But clearly, work needs to be done to change attitudes towards e-scooters as well as other modes of transport. We only have to look at the reaction to the recent Channel 5 documentary regarding cyclists in London to understand how deep divisions run. Headlines such as ‘the battle for Britain’s road is on’ are inflammatory and no help in changing our roads for the better.

Is the electric scooter about to become legal?

The report on urban mobility sets out several guiding principles as to how transport in London, and other urban centres, will change in the coming years. Whilst there is no explicit mention of making electric scooters legal, it is clear that they, along with other modes of transport are not being ruled out.

Several of the principles could be related directly to the development of electric scooters for commuting including new modes of transport being safe and secure by design and how innovation in mobility is advantageous not just in the capital but across the nation. Active travel, says the report, must remain the best options for short journeys and any transport methods must have zero carbon emissions, both of which the e-scooter fulfils.

But the report also goes on to talk of how innovation in transport and mobility services must and should be encouraged because, to emphasise the point again, how we get around in the city cannot stay as it is.

 

You can read the full report on the changing nature of transport in cities and towns here