Are e-scooters the future of transport?

James O'Malley 29 March 2022

They've never been more popular and are perfect for getting around cities with ease, but should you start shopping around for an e-scooter? Our tech writer reckons so. Here's why

E-scooters are an increasingly common site on Britain’s roads… and Britain’s pavements. Like a jumbo-sized version of a child’s push scooter, with an electric motor attached, they have become the go-to vehicle of unruly teenagers everywhere. But here are two things that might surprise you about them:

First, they’re technically illegal, even though they’re quite clearly being used by thousands of people. Because of the way the law is written, e-scooters cannot use the pavements and cycle lanes, because they have a motor.

But they can’t use the roads as motor vehicles either, because they are not properly licensed or taxed. So privately-owned scooters can technically only be used on private land.

And here’s the second thing: I think they are brilliant. 

They’re another consequence of the explosion of battery innovation happening in tech, that I wrote about in the December 2021 issue. Because energy density and efficiency has improved, it has made it possible to strap a battery onto a scooter, and actually have it carry you far enough to be useful.

For example, the Ninebot Max, one of the most popular brands of scooter, can comfortably travel over 20 miles before needing a recharge (though this will decrease if the rider is on the heavier side).

The Last Mile Problem

I’m enthusiastic about scooters because I think they’re like a Swiss Army Knife, and can help solve multiple problems in society: they’re much greener than cars, which is great for pollution and the environment. They’re much smaller too, so take up less space on the road—making them especially great in urban areas where congestion is a problem.

They could even help mitigate Britain’s ongoing housing crisis. Why? Because e-scooters could expand the distance in which it is reasonable to commute, making more housing accessible to the people who need it.

And from a less high-minded perspective, it’s impossible to deny that they’re huge fun to ride. Despite the legal situation, it is possible to try scooting yourself. In 2020, the government authorised local authorities to permit trials of rental scooter schemes around the country.

"It’s impossible to deny that they’re huge fun to ride"

These work similarly to the bike rental schemes that are now commonplace in cities. The scooters are operated by a range of providers, and can be picked up off the street by scanning a QR-code with an app.

And to make sure everyone stays safe, the rules have been set so that if your scooter detects you riding outside of the permitted area, the electric motor will throttle down, forcing you to get off and push.

I can imagine the benefits of scooting in my own life, living in suburbia. At the moment, I live about 1.3 miles away from my nearest railway station in an area with an irregular bus service.

This means that I’m faced with the choice of a 30-minute walk or jumping in my car to make the relatively short trip in less than five minutes. 

There are no prizes for guessing which option wins most often.

And sure, cycling is another option—but it doesn’t always work for everyone. What’s great about e-scooters is that they’re quick, but won’t leave you a slightly sweaty mess when you reach your desired destination.

Legal Scooters Won’t Be As Annoying

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Scooter users are already annoying—so wouldn’t legalising them make them even worse? I’m not convinced. If e-scooters were legalised, they could be properly licensed and regulated.

And I don’t think it would mean more reckless riders, as the people technically breaking the law now are, by definition, more willing to take risks. I doubt we’ll see librarians, doctors and pensioners tearing up the pavements.

I also think if privately owned scooters were allowed, it would also incentivise good behaviour, as scooter owners rather than renters would be more likely to, for example, own a helmet and take good care of their own equipment.

There is some good news for the sceptics though. At the end of last year, the government scooted the question of legalisation into the long grass, announcing that instead of making a decision, the regional trials would be extended until November.

So, alas, my dream of an e-scooter utopia might have to wait for a bit longer.

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