Freewheeling into trouble? The pitfalls of eScooter hire schemes

July 3, 2020
Andy Murphy

Amid the cacophony of Coronavirus news, the government made it legal for people to use e-Scooters in the UK from Saturday… or at least that’s what the headlines implied.

Instead, what the government has actually done is make it legal to rent e-scooters through companies such as Bird and Lime.

In London, the introduction of the official docked hire bikes were generally seen as a positive and led to an increase in cycling across town. However the introduction of third-party bicycle hire schemes led to dumped bicycles blighting parks, bushes and footpaths around the capital, and many have now started cluttering our waterways.

The evidence from the US and Europe is that while e-scooters provide an environmentally friendly, low cost, congestion-friendly way of getting around towns and cities, the rental schemes and, more accurately, the irresponsible people using them, lead to real problems. Piles of dumped scooters blocking paths and spoiling once open pavements and thoroughfares are a common sight in locations where they are active.

In America, they have seen an explosion of these schemes in major cities. Users love them, non-users not so much. There is an interesting podcast episode from Business Insider which explores the phenomenon and how these companies have exploited slow-to-respond local councils to introduce the schemes and make them ubiquitous before they had a chance to respond with legislation to control their use. The podcast follows the exploits of an enterprising couple of guys who have set up a business collecting scooters dumped on private land. They then hold them until the hire companies pay to release them, something they are unwilling or uninterested in doing. It seems a good level of wastage is built in.

Anyone who lives in London or a major UK city will likely have seen someone zipping around on one, not surprising as sales of electric scooters jumped 50 per cent in 2019 at UK retailer Micro Scooters – despite it being illegal to ride on the UK roads and pavements. So, if so many people privately own them, why make only hire companies legal? They’re either a good solution or not? By only legalising private scooters, it ensures the problems of the continent are not repeated. That’s a win-win surely?

It seems the hire companies have been very persuasive. Riders won’t require a helmet. Or licence (provisional licence is all that’s needed). In fact the MCIA has noted that the specification of the trial scooters, have power and weight limits beyond those highlighted in the MCIA document or suggested by the DfT’s own consultation. The only reason I can see for the government taking this approach is because it can earn money by controlling licences and collecting taxes.

Legalising private eScooters and banning hire companies is a win-win for me. Any shared ownership scheme should surely be voided in the current climate. We’re told to clean everything from cars to restaurant tables between uses yet these schemes encourage people to share the same items unchecked. Surely, private ownership of e-scooters in the current health emergency is a better solution. What could have been a practical, healthy and environmentally-friendly solution to easing the burden on our public transport network is likely instead to result in similar complaints as those from residents of other major cities?