Visit any major European city and the micro-mobility revolution is evident everywhere.
Until COVID-19, cities were abuzz with colourfully branded eScooters from snappily single-syllable titled companies, Tier, Circ, Bird, Lime, Voi, Kiwi, Jump, zipping along bus lanes and swooping through parks as effortlessly cool twenty-somethings, business people and youngsters amply demonstrate their convenience and speed in getting from A to B. Meanwhile, the UK has resolutely held back from allowing their use on grounds of them being neither legal to use on the public highway or public footpath. To some, the concept of e-scooters feels like a step too soon, when most of the UK is still grappling to embrace the bikeshare concept and will choice just cause confusion, especially if bikes and e-scooters are competing for users, rather than complementing one another as part of a regional active travel strategy?
COVID-19 is forcing us to re-think how to enable efficient mobility as traditional mass-transit grapples with delivering the ‘mass’ bit in a socially distanced world. Grant Shapps, UK Transport Minister, keen to avoid a switch to single occupancy car travel announced a £2billion funding pot to encourage walking and cycling, extending and bringing forward the trialling of rental eScooters in four ‘future mobility zone’ areas, to all local areas in the country that wants to try them. Whether eScooters deliver the active travel benefits of walking and cycling – there’s not much active about riding an eScooter – is debatable, but the door to greater micro-mobility options has been nudged opened.
Trials are limited to rental eScooters, not the use of personally owned machines, and focus on understanding the potential benefits to congestion reduction and lowering emissions. But the trials should also explore how these rental schemes can be delivered sustainably, minimising the downsides so evident from other cities where they have become established. Drawing a parallel to other mobility asset hire services like public bike share, eScooters have several advantages; they are physically small, can be held in high density on-street, can be distributed and moved around easily. They operate in a fundamentally similar way to public hire bikes, found and accessed by a customer using an app and paying via an account on a cost per use basis. The synergies are obvious and integration into city mobility platforms is technically no more challenging than for a bike hire scheme.
So far, so encouraging. But through hard experience many public cycle hire operators have learned that achieving sustainability – not the environmental understanding of it, but the hard cold reality of sustainability meaning delivering something that continues to be viable to deliver commercially in the long term – is tough. Chinese bike hire operators and early eScooter operators opted to deploy very cheap assets that were to all intents and purposes disposable, along with an acceptance that asset replacement will be an ongoing overhead.
We recall these services being characterised by very light on-street support and maintenance operations and bikes being abandoned broken around cities. Later generation eScooter models appear to have learned the lesson of bikes. Products designed for their commercial purpose, stronger and more resilient. EScooter operator VOI suggests their latest models have increased expected operational lifespan from 12 to 24 months over early models. Other operators talk of 18 months being considered long-lasting. These are based on experiences outside the UK but as with bikes, weather and attitudes in the UK to publicly available shared mobility assets can look very different so these lifespans must be optimistic.
It’s easy to see the appeal of eScooters and their uptake as personally-owned mobility devices will probably be strong. UK trials on rental eScooters should provide authorities the opportunity to build clarity on where these services fit and coordinate with other mobility options. They should build an understanding on who the customers are – who uses them and why – and how vulnerable the assets are to abuse.
What might not be taken from any trials though, is that this has to be a trigger for long term behavioural change and this is where the challenge could be. Will operators and authorities have the resource and steadfastness to stick with it, if take up is slow? Can operators afford to invest in the levels of engagement required to drive the necessary changes in mindset and behaviours? The trials will develop a view on what level of quality, availability and safety is appropriate for the mode, and if necessary what the implications are for encouraging small-wheeled scooters onto physical infrastructure and roads where surface integrity and maintenance may become more critical. If there is no public subsidy is available to operators, authorities need to consider how services are configured that enable the operators themselves to be viable long term.
UK trials will give a great opportunity to evaluate the potential for eScooters, but without these clear objectives and working collaboratively with operators, rental eScooters may become a short-lived investor-led fad opportunity rather than a sustainable long term public mobility offer.
Martin Bignell is a Partner at Colab & Consult, an organisation that can help operators, consultancies and the public sector with their active travel projects, from strategic development to delivery. For more information, visit www.colabandconsult.co.uk
How can we help you?
Could your upcoming bid or contract benefit from a combined 30 years of experience in the sector? Get in touch with us today to discuss your project.