London: Missing out on a dockless opportunity?
Unless you live under a rock, you have probably become aware of the dockless scooter revolution. Powered, dockless, and almighty, the kick scooters most of us have filed under “kids’ toys” are making a comeback as an adult-appropriate solution.
Their rising popularity in the United States has led a multiple cities to launch pilot programmes with a number of dockless scooter providers in a bid to control how scooter-sharing operates within their boundaries. Recently, the scooter-craze landed in Europe - the scooter giants, Bird and Lime, dropped their electric scooters in the City of Light. Yet, there’s a glaring omission in the list of European cities embracing scooting: London.
Why is London scooter-less?
There are very specific reasons why electric kick scooters have not been deployed in London. According to an information sheet released by the British government, “powered mini scooters”, such as Go-Peds, fall under the category of “Powered Transporters”. Any type of powered transporter can be ridden on private property. Yet, in order for the swift two-wheeled vehicles to be driven on public roads, a registration with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is required. For this to be accomplished, the scooter’s owner needs to show a proof of type approval. For the requisite approval to be secured, one needs to pass the Motorcycle Single Vehicle Approval - on top of it being a relatively burdensome process, the classic Bird-like scooters stand virtually no chance of qualifying. As relevant case law shows, a Go-Ped-like scooter would not adhere to the road traffic legislation relating to minor vehicles - “inadequate steering and no basic services normally associated to a motor vehicle such as lights, suspension, clutch or controls to enable a rider to control the machine properly”.
Take-away: It is virtually impossible to acquire a permit to use a motorised scooter on public roads.
Who’s afraid of dockless scooters?
The British capital has taken bold steps towards modernising urban mobility: Theresa May has pledged vast sums for building electric charging infrastructure across the United Kingdom; furthermore, the “Future of Mobility” has decisively taken one of the four spots on the “Grand Challenges” set, a list that defines the industrial challenges that the UK needs to address in order to remain at the forefront of the future developments. Locally, London’s Mayor has been very vocal about decongesting the city centre and saving Londoners from the extremely high levels of pollution in the capital, going as far as promising a ban on internal combustion engines in some areas.
Admittedly, for a City that boasts the largest cycle hire scheme in Europe, London has been very slow to embrace new developments in dockless urban mobility. Bird and Lime have already deployed their scooters in Paris, a city with a much denser underground railway system than London, but have not announced any plans of deploying in London anytime soon.
Accessibility and Congestion
Fundamentally, the addition of dockless scooters to the mix of options available to Londoners will help decongest the centre. According to Moovit, the average distance commuters travel using public transit is 8.9km. Although e-scooter data from London is obviously not available, Bloomberg says the average distance travelled on e-scooters in San Francisco is 2.4km (1.5 miles). As data from the Department of Transport reveals, approximately a quarter of taxi rides (this includes black cabs and other private-hire-vehicles) are under 3.2km (2 miles), and another 50 percent includes trips ranging from 3.2 - 8km (2-5 miles).
Evidently, a very large part of all black cab / Private-Hire-Vehicles (PHV) trips can be completed using e-scooters. The choice of a cab/PHV instead of public transit could suggest that some travellers value the on-demand nature of a PHV (time-saving aspect), are unable to access public transit easily (due to location or time - the Tube is not open 24/7), or prefer the convenience of a chauffeured vehicle. Out of these groups of travellers, some would arguably switch to a lower cost, yet similarly fast means of moving around, thus removing another car from the busy streets of the British capital.
Moreover, despite its effectiveness, the London Underground system (the Tube) is not perfect. People living south of the Thames, for example, only have access to approximately 30 Tube stations - a stark contrast with the over 250 stations north of Thames. This creates a big gap (and a great opportunity for dockless mobility providers) in areas like Bermondsey, where the nearest Tube station or bus stop may be a long walk away from one’s home. At the moment, people living in under-serviced areas may choose to forego using public transit for some/all of their trips altogether, and instead, choose to cab/Uber to their final destination. E-scooters could bridge the distance to the nearest Tube station/Bus stop, thus decongesting the streets and creating a new revenue stream for the local transportation authority, Transport for London.
Missing out on data from scooter providers
The other side of the dockless mobility coin is data collection. The operators of dockless bike-sharing and dockless scooter-sharing scheme gain access to a tremendous amount of data. Such data includes, among other things, the pick-up location, the average speed of the journey, and the drop-off location; In combination with the demographics of the population using the dockless vehicles in each case, access to this real-time, valuable information can help cities make informed, public policy decisions.
As the urban centres are destined to be reshaped, the availability of relevant data is fundamental in guiding such reshaping. As autonomous driving companies, including Waymo, Drive.ai, and the British FiveAI, gear up to offer autonomous shuttle service, data from scooter providers can help reveal weak spots in the current transit system, for example - this could help take a more targeted approach in covering “gaps” in London.
Lack of relevant regulation
As Liam Lawless, Director of Sales at Inokim UK told the Wired, he has been using an electric scooter in London regularly but has never been pulled over by the police. Although a sample size of one is not to be trusted (statistically, at least), there are other signs that there is a market for e-scooters that is starting to boom in the dark - Lawless says he sold 34 scooters within a period of two weeks.
This lack of relevant legislation paired with a “blind eye” attitude by the Metropolitan Police poses another threat. Primarily, it allows reckless behaviours to go unnoticed, unpunished, and eventually, become habits. If a scooter rider knows they will not be punished for driving their e-scooter on public roads, it seems unlikely they would fear being fined for riding that scooter without a helmet, for example. The legislation is obviously unclear on the issue: as e-scooters are banned from being used on public streets, there is no clear guidance on whether a helmet needs to be used. Additionally, the lack of relevant legislation makes it impossible to regulate the design of these e-scooters. Should they carry turn signals, headlamps, helmet holders? Amid the absence of a comprehensive regulatory framework, importers of e-scooters can sell any products freely.
Secondarily, as e-scooting starts growing in secrecy, the City of London loses a potential strategic advantage. At the moment, the City of London could stipulate any conditions in a pilot programme agreement and any interested parties would likely agree - London is a hot market and largely seen as impenetrable at the moment. If the “black market” of scooting grows, a scooter provider could drop its scooters without informing the City (in Uber-like fashion), thus creating momentum behind scooter use and weakening the City’s position. Alternatively, if this situation, which prevents scooter providers from launching in London, continues, Londoners interested in scooting may choose to invest in their own e-scooters, thus decreasing the potential demand for a scooter-sharing scheme. Admittedly, London is a populous city, so it is unlikely that demand would ever be low enough - but it is still a possibility, if the current situation drags on for too long. Scooters, after all, are not as bulky as bicycles, so the relative advantages of shared bikes as opposed to personal bikes (e.g. not having to park/store the bike after every trip) are not necessarily applicable, in the case of the much smaller scooters.
Is it time to reevaluate?
London wants to be at the forefront of modern urban mobility. If this modernisation will have any meaningful effect for Londoners, the City needs to stop exclusively focusing on the transition from fossil fuels to electricity. Instead, Transport for London needs to consider new solutions that are not just fuel-efficient, but also space-efficient: e-scooters may just be the solution Londoners need.