Robert Alexander via Getty Images / WIRED
You will have seen them whizzing silently around pavements, down cycle lanes and even in the middle of the road. Electric scooters may have become commonplace on our streets, but they are technically still illegal in the UK — until now.
Rental companies have been given the green light to offer e-scooters in trials that are going to be held in locations across the country from July 4. Around 50 councils are reportedly interested in hosting trials, with Middlesbrough listed as one initial site.
On June 30 the Department for Transport gave the go-ahead for trials of battery-powered scooters that, until now, were banned on public roads and footpaths. The new legal framework governing the trials explains that vehicles will be limited to 15.5mph and will only be allowed on roads, cycle lanes and tracks, but not pavements. Helmets will be recommended, not mandatory.
Even though rental companies like Lime, Bird, Voi, Wind, Tier, Circ and Dott may race to provide e-scooters to the masses, you can’t use them everywhere, and the rules are still very confusing. Here’s a breakdown of what you can (and can’t) do.
What are the new rules?
Absolutely nothing is stopping you going online to buy your very own e-scooter. But technically you can’t use it on pavements, cycle lanes, or the road, as a result of a law dating back to 1835. Anyone who does is technically committing an offence and risks a £300 fine and six points on their driver’s licence (if they have one).
Until July 4, the only place an e-scooter can be used is on private land, with the permission of the landowner. This is different from normal scooters (with no battery packs), which cannot be used on pavements or cycle paths but can be used on roads.
So unless you own a private park and have a desperate need for speed, it’s an expensive piece of equipment that you can’t technically use in public spaces.
E-scooters are currently classified as Personal Light Electric Vehicles (PLEVs), so they’re treated as motor vehicles and are subject to all the same legal requirements – MOT, tax, licensing and specific construction. Because they don’t always have visible rear lights or a number plate, they can’t be used on the road. You would also technically need a driving licence to operate one.
However, the sheer number of e-scooters visible in the street shows that some people have been heeding this regulation. There is no data on the amount of people who have been fined under this legislation.
After July 4, you can hire an e-scooter in pre-approved trial locations and ride it around. People will need a full or provisional car, motorcycle or moped licence to take part in the trials, and must be 16 or over. To avoid a flood of poor-quality scooters onto the streets, the regulations only cover rental schemes.
The trials, which are scheduled to last 12 months, will be “closely monitored” by the government to assess the benefits of e-scooters and their impact on public space. The Department for Transport is proposing to regulate e-scooters in the same way as electric bikes in the future, but for the purposes of this trial they will still be classed as PLEVs — and children cannot rent them. You will be able to use e-scooters in cycle lanes as part of the trials, but not on cycle tracks.
Although rental e-scooters are hitting the streets from July 4, there is no change in privately-owned e-scooters. In a characteristically disjointed policy quirk, there will be places where you can hire an e-scooter and ride, but riding your own will still be illegal.
Where will I be able to hire e-scooters from July 4?
The trial areas for rental e-scooters have yet to be confirmed, but the government has previously announced four transport zones where it wanted to trial transport tech: Portsmouth and Southampton, Derby and Nottingham, West of England Combined Authority (Bristol, Bath, the Northern Arc and Bristol Airport) and the West Midlands. So technically, you could use e-scooters in these trial areas but not travel outside of them: you could travel from Derby to Nottingham, but not Derby to Newcastle, for example.
However, any local authority can apply to trial e-scooters according to the government’s guidelines.
US e-scooter companies Bird and Lime, as well as European counterparts Voi and Tier, were already in talks with local authorities about launching trials in UK cities last month, according to a report by CNBC.
Roger Hassan, chief operating officer at Tier, says that the company already has “more than 1,000” e-scooters in a UK warehouse, ready to be deployed and we will be shipping more over very soon.
Why are e-scooters legal in other countries but not the UK?
At present, Bird is the only e-scooter sharing company operating on British soil, thanks to what amounts to a technicality: a trial at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, where it has 50 scooters, is only operational thanks to it being classed as private land. Milton Keynes was scheduled to become a testbed for e-scooters in June, piloted by the local council’s employees.
The companies behind these dockless scooters – such as Lime, Bird and Reby – have been lobbying the government to allow them to operate here, with the promise of a revolution in urban transport, a way to bridge the “last mile” between public transport hubs and where people want to be. E-scooter ride sharing apps have been launched in many cities around Europe as an offshoot of the now familiar cycle-hire sharing schemes seen in the UK. E-scooters could also offer a simple and cheap means to get around for those less physically able or mobile.
The UK government has come under pressure to provide alternatives to crowded public transport during the pandemic for people who need to commute to work. Already, sales of bicycles have surged during lockdown.
In some cities in Europe, a lack of regulation has led to problems including dockless e-scooters littering streets and safety concerns. In Paris, where 12 startups provide e-scooters around the city and 20,000 scooters were clogging up the streets and annoying other road users, the mayor recently imposed restrictions on their use. People can now be fined €135 for driving them on the pavement or €35 for parking them in doorways, crosswalks and other busy locations, blocking pedestrians. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, require e-scooters to be authorised by vehicle licensing authorities. The use of e-scooters on German roads is subject to speed restrictions and age limits.
Some ride-hailing firms claim that the clogging of the streets can be alleviated by a Transport for London-style license system, similar to that of ride-hailing companies. They argue that fewer, responsible companies will help to avoid clutter.
How dangerous are e-scooters?
Most regular electric scooters have a max speed of 20mph though some models are capable of reaching up to 60mph. They can be dangerous for the rider if they crash, or if they collide with other road users. The problem with e-scooters is that like bikes, they are almost silent — and even more difficult to see coming.
E-scooters have been restricted in other countries for safety reasons after several deaths. Silent vehicles like e-scooters can also be particularly dangerous for people with disabilities, such as blind and partially sighted people as they are hard to hear and capable of reaching high speeds.
There has already been one e-scooter related death in the UK. Emily Hartridge, a television presenter who was using an e-scooter on a road in south-west London, died last year when she was hit by a lorry.
However, the biggest concern is that like dockless bikes in major cities, these e-scooters will end up on pavements, unfairly obstructing the way for people with disabilities. It is still not clear whether companies will be obliged to fund docking stations for e-scooters or set up a more efficient collecting system if they become more widespread.
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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