Residents of Middlesbrough in north-east England will be the first in the UK to legally ride electric scooters on the open road when the law changes on Saturday, as the government struggles to prevent a recovery from coronavirus based on cars.
Though e-scooters have been whizzing illegally around many UK cities for the past few years, the pandemic has prompted the government to speed up plans to pilot public rental schemes.
The Department for Transport said the Tees Valley would be the first to test what the region’s mayor, Ben Houchen, praised as “a clean energy, socially distant mode of transport”. An initial 100 scooters are set to appear in Middlesbrough later this month in a partnership with a new UK-based operator, Ginger, rolling out across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.
Allowed to go no faster than 15.5mph, the scooters can be ridden on the road or in bike lanes but not on the pavement. Helmets are recommended but not compulsory. It is likely to cost about GBP1 to unlock a scooter using an app, with riders charged between 15p and 25p per minute extra per ride.
Users will need a full or provisional car, motorcycle or moped licence to take part in the trials, and must be 16 or over. Though e-scooters are already available to buy online and in many bike shops, only rented bikes will be legal under the law that applies in England, Scotland and Wales.
How this distinction will be policed is not yet clear, admits Portsmouth councillor Lynne Stagg, who is part of a committee that has agreed to introduce a rental scheme across the Solent region of Hampshire, Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight this summer.
“I’m all for e-scooters as long as they are legal. We have been liaising with the police over how to crack down on the illegal ones. I’ve seen people already riding like absolute lunatics,” she said.
She hopes e-scooters can be part of a green economic recovery, improving air quality and reducing congestion. “The average number of cars per household in Portsmouth is 1.6. My hope is that e-scooters will encourage households to get rid of their second car,” she said.
Rental companies already operating in mainland Europe are competing with startups such as Ginger in a race to woo local authorities, insisting they will bear the costs – and risks – of pilot schemes. “We’ve already been contacted by 20, perhaps 25 different firms,” said Stagg.
Despite a few high-profile accidents – last year the Youtuber and TV presenter Emily Hartridge died riding an e-scooter in London – research from the International Transport Federation found that a trip by car or by motorcycle in a dense urban area is much more likely to result in a death than a trip by a e-scooter.
Councils can stipulate how their pilot schemes operate. In Portsmouth and the Tees Valley, users will be fined for riding outside of the operation zone and have to dock their bikes in designated parking spaces.
Other areas may take a more relaxed approach, allowing riders to park up wherever they like. Some may consider that naive, given the experience of the first generation of “dockless” bike hire schemes, such as Mobike, much of whose fleet was vandalised or dumped in canals after launching in Manchester in 2017.
The operators insist they have learned lessons from Mobike’s woes. “Overall, our loss rate is about 0.5% and we are active now in 65 cities in nine countries,” said Roger Hassan, the chief operating officer of Tier, a German company that hopes to gain a foothold in the UK to add to its 45,000-strong fleet. “We’ve learned from the Mobike wave of craziness.”
Tier scooters weigh 27kg, making it more difficult – but not impossible – to throw in a canal. Most rental models include GPS tracking and software that allow operators to designate no-go zones.
In London, the US-owned operator Bird has run a rental scheme in the privately owned Olympic Park since November 2018. According to spokesman Harry Porter, Bird can programme the scooters to drop their speed in certain areas. “So when they approach a playground, for example, the maximum speed drops to 5mph until you’ve gone 50 yards beyond it,” said Porter.
Only one scooter has gone missing in 18 months, he insisted: “If we see that a scooter has left the zone we just turn the motor off so that it is no fun to ride and all someone has cluttering up their hallway is a useless, massive paperweight.”
Many conflicts lie ahead, not least with blind people, who argue they are most likely to be mowed down by e-scooters.
“If there is strong uptake – and looking elsewhere in the world where they are being used it’s likely there will be – then they will add to the case for bike lanes which would be good,” said Chris Boardman, the former Olympic cyclist turned Greater Manchester walking and cycling commissioner.
“Longer term they may also see people progress to bikes for greater speed, range and health so the potential to be a positive travel disruptor is high. However, there are a lot of hurdles that need to be addressed, such as the potential conflict with pedestrians and the need for smooth roads to stay safe, so I’ll be fascinated to see how the trial goes.”
Werneth Low is one of the steepest hills in Greater Manchester, offering spectacular views towards the city and Peak District but really testing the thighs of even the fittest cyclists. I decided to see whether an e-scooter could cope with the 13% gradient, borrowing the world’s bestselling e-scooter – the Xiaomi M365 pro (GBP569.99) – from Pure Electric.
The UK government says e-scooters can have motors with a maximum continuous power rating of 500W. The Xiaomi’s is 300W and a fully charged battery will propel you up to 28 miles at a maximum speed of 15mph. To get going, you have to do a few manual scoots and then press a little lever on the handlebars before – whoosh! – you’re off. Even just over 12mph feels naughtily fast, so I keep my left hand permanently hovering over the brake as I whizz through Stockport’s suburbia.
In my spare time I campaign to get more people walking and cycling where I live. The hills have always been a stumbling block to the cause but e-bikes and scooters feel like a realistic alternative to car commuting for those normal people who don’t perspire for fun. The Xiaomi survives the ascent of Werneth Low, chivvied along with a few human scoots. Going downhill is the hairy part, particularly when I hit an enormous pothole.
My trip is, strictly speaking, illegal. From Saturday, only rented e-scooters will be allowed on the roads. But Pure Electric is hoping to offer long-term loans to customers to keep the government happy. I’m certainly smiling after my illicit test drive – and am not even vaguely sweaty for once.