Innovation continues to advance in the world of mobility and new ideas are appearing and rolling out around the globe. Only a few years ago, docked cycle-hire/rental schemes were any global city’s priority need, following success in Barcelona, Montreal, and Paris. Disruption then arrived and it was only in the last few years that dockless cycle-hire schemes seem to indicate the end of the complex and costly docked schemes based on success in China and global tests elsewhere. Now, e-scooters are redefining best practice and consumer popularity in terms of urban mobility options.
Certainly scooters are not new, but have been around for many years following the development of the mass produced bicycle and were seen as a variation of that technology. In the last few decades, in particular, they were typically seen as a child’s toy and built as such from plastics and low-strength materials. Various markets have claimed to be the origin of the recent popularization of scooters, but since roughly the millennium a rediscovery or repositioning of this form of transport has occurred in many markets around the world.
High strength materials able to support adults and rigorous daily use; the general popularity of cycling and other physically based forms of transport; the creation of spaces in cities for cycling and other non-car based modes of transport; and particularly the ability to add light weight, reliable, and long-lasting battery power has now reinvented the scooter as a potential means of local transport.
Shared-bicycle schemes helped to fill the perceived gap in last-mile transport services in cities around the world. The technology to enable the move from fixed-dock to floating cycle hire has further revolutionized the bicycle hire market and made these services vastly less expensive to roll out in terms of infrastructure, as well as time to market. Bicycle hire, as well as bicycling in general, has always had the issue of requiring some largely dedicated parking spaces albeit much less than a car. Note the current issues in The Netherlands regarding provision for large scale bicycle parking facilities at rail stations. Scooters and e-scooters are much smaller and lighter and can weigh only a few pounds, and thus, can be physically carried, or at least parked, in very small footprint. Battery power is revolutionizing bikes as well as scooters, but e-bikes are typically seen as longer distance travel options in cities and more rural areas in Europe and are certainly more expensive devices, while e-scooters can typically be used for local trips in a city center.
The new micromobility kid on the block
While no innovation should be considered inevitable, e-scooters are devices whose time has certainly arrived and they are rapidly appearing in locations all over the world and certainly across Europe.
School children were early adopters of the scooter and a cluster of kick scooters are a usual sight at many schools across the UK and many other locations in Europe. Positively, this assists in the persistent problem of traffic congestion around schools by encouraging children, as well as their parents, to consider more sustainable travel means for the “school run.”
Most of the shared e-scooter services are being deployed by originally U.S.-based businesses including Bird, Jump, and Lime. European players are also entering the market such as Bolt, Hive, and Wind. Many of the larger and more popular European cities are rapidly seeing more than one operator enter their market.
However, the market is evolving fast.
Don't get lost in translation
Some definitions are useful. In English speaking European terms “e-scooters” are electrically powered devices that would otherwise be known as “kick scooters” and thus, usually have two wheels, a simple friction brake, a lightweight metal frame, and are designed for one adult to use while standing. In other territories they may be known under a range of various names. In France they are typically called “e-trott(inette).” This term is also used in many German speaking areas of Europe such as Zurich, Switzerland. “Scooter” is also often used to refer to the “motor scooter” as a lightweight version of the motorcycle.
Learning from the painful lessons on the deployment of ride-sharing services such as Uber in European cities as well as the more recent deployment, and in many cases withdrawal, of large numbers of free floating bicycles in many cities, local authorities, and most e-scooter businesses are starting from a point of dialogue regarding how these services can work within a city. This includes issues such as potential licensing, parking of the e-scooters, management of public spaces, and advice on safe use of the equipment.
The Autonomy Group in Paris has provided an overview of the various schemes in operation across Europe as of December 2018.
We should now expect a perpetual series of innovations in the world of transport. This is offering customers increased transport options and radically expanding the set of fundamental choices. It is also making our industry more aware of and sensitive to enabling, if not supporting, innovation. E-scooters are part of this innovation and while not a mode of choice for some are certainly viable and attractive options for quite a few — particularly in short to medium distance urban travel and amongst younger adults.
In a European context while many cities and operators are becoming used to disruptive new market entrants, the e-scooter option is raising a number of concerns and issues that cities are facing as systems are deployed from Spain to Poland and north to Sweden. Paris and Madrid have seen particular activity in e-scooter deployments with multiple operators entering, and leaving, these markets.
Is a powered device allowed on the pavement/sidewalk or on the road according to local laws? Due to long-standing legislation in the UK, e-scooters are not allowed on the pavement (sidewalk) as a powered device (personal light electric device or PLEV) and are also illegal on the road due to their low levels of power. Nevertheless, over 2018 they have become a common sight, by private owners, in London and some other UK cities. Bird from the U.S. has launched a pilot in east London on private land in the Olympic Park. However, this market restriction has led to a quite narrow development of e-scooter-type devices in the UK over the years.
The British legal restriction is not typical of other European markets and particularly countries that have much more extensive and dedicated bicycle lane infrastructure such as The Netherlands and Germany. Thus, in these markets you see a much wider range of scooters — whether powered or not — as well as the increasing use of lightweight electric “motor” scooters. The diversity of the e-scooter market as seen in a country such as France is really quite remarkable. This perhaps raises the potential that the currently popular form factor for the e-scooter may be a transitory stage to an alternative or range of alternative designs.
Dealing with more congestion
Bicycle lanes are often widespread in a continental European context and connect urban as well as interurban locations. But, is an e-scooter a bicycle or something else? Does it matter in terms of sharing the cycling infrastructure?
European cities are often extremely crowded and congested, and while part of their charm it makes space and, particularly space adjacent to the street, a premium. For the past 60 years, this has been an issue regarding car as well as motorcycle parking versus the range of other users such as sidewalk cafes, underground utility access, pedestrians, delivery access, taxi parking, advertising banners as well as now personal bicycle parking, shared bicycles, and scooters. All of these users are often mixed amongst large numbers of visitors in historic city or town centers.
While in The Netherlands, this conflict of space has led to underground bicycle parking lots such as in Utrecht, Maastricht, and Rotterdam to relieve particularly central station areas of surface cycle parking, a persistent and now increasing crisis of pavement (sidewalk) space is occurring in many locations. It is not only that e-scooters, as well as bicycles, require space to park, but e-scooters are also being used on the pavements as well and further encroach on the space otherwise used particularly by pedestrians.
This has led to debates about restricting or banning e-scooters in Spain where an elderly pedestrian was killed in Barcelona in the summer of 2018. Thus, cities are trying to find ways to regulate this newly emerging mode with practical and effective rules. Madrid had temporally enforced a ban on free floating e-scooters while new rules were put in place in December of this year. Barcelona and Valencia have effectively banned free-floating e-scooter operators and are actively preventing such schemes from being established in their cities.
In Paris, the mobility-sharing economy has been in turmoil over the last two years as the Autolib (shared-electric cars) scheme has been withdrawn with a pending arrival of a new set of private services and Velib (shared-pedal bicycles) has changed operators, which resulted in severe service disruption.
Meanwhile, waves of floating bicycles have arrived and then been withdrawn due to unworkable business models. Nevertheless, e-scooters have arrived now in large numbers and are a common site in the city. The local authorities see the French capital as one of the premier centers for innovation in Europe, and the world, and are actively courting new businesses across a wide range of sectors including transport. However, this is leading to ongoing debates about effectively managing all of these existing as well as pending-mobility concepts. The exact nature of effective rules that encourage mobility innovation, but protect other pavement users and the general public is still proving elusive and complex.
European cities are watching the situation on the streets while discussing with each other and through industry for an emerging best practice.
How this conversation is managed continues to evolve. However, on the basis that e-scooters are not going to be the final element in this conversation and other innovations are inevitably pending that will also request pavement space, this will inevitably be one of the key points that the mobility industry will need to continue to grapple with in the coming years.