Noa Khamallah, former Executive at Voi and Lime, argues that not only are e-scooters the perfect fit for the cities of the future but they can also help speed up the UK’s emergence from the pandemic
Everything old is new again. Just ask Lady Florence Norman, the suffragette who in 1916 first popularised the ‘motor scooter’ as the future of transport. “Everybody that can ride a bike can ride a motor scooter,” Norman enthused from atop an Autoped during the First World War.
It is fair to say that Lady Norman’s efforts were somewhat more successful in securing women the vote than scooting. Bar a post-Second World War surge in scooters owing to fuel rationing, the future of British transport has belonged to the motor vehicle. And so it is again as our cities struggle with COVID-19. People have returned to their cars to avoid a brush with this crippling virus on public transport.
The challenge for cities is that congestion and pollution are not going away. Nor, at least in the short-term in the midst of another government-mandated lockdown, is the coronavirus. Cities are going to have to embrace new ways of moving to beat back their challenges and that means embracing e-scooters and other forms of so-called ‘micromobility’ as safe and convenient alternatives to car, bus, tram and train travel.
Now forget what you hear about e-scooters being a scourge. Yes, there are a few bad apples who don’t use them responsibly, but our roads and motorways are plagued by similarly irresponsible drivers. And yes, some people use their scooters to get into trouble. But people also use bikes and cars to get up to no good, and we don’t blame cars or bikes for their actions, do we?
Besides, any misuse of scooters is vastly outweighed by the benefits of micromobility. Scooters are accessible to people on a wide range of incomes, easy to use, cheap to operate, convenient to store in your home or office, and environmentally friendly. In other words, they are perfect for the cities of the future.
More importantly, e-scooters can help propel cities out of the worst of the pandemic in the coming months. If we are to touch normal again this year, we need every safe mode of transport available to citizens. Why subject yourself to crowded train carriages or buses when you can freely cruise the streets instead?
This isn’t to suggest there are no problems with the various e-scooter trials being conducted up and down the United Kingdom. There are too many free-floating e-scooters cluttering our pavements and causing headaches for pedestrians and councils across the country. Allowing people to place their e-scooters anywhere is an invitation to frustration; nobody wants to have to dodge obstacles as they walk or push their pram through the High Street.
Thankfully there is an answer to these problems: docking. Give e-scooters a storage point on our streets and they will be welcomed as a trusted companion to cycles. Docks can also double up as a charge point for e-scooters, thereby eliminating the need for an army of contractors to race around town collecting, charging, and re-distributing scooters around our pavements- a practice that eliminates much of their environmental benefit.
The problem right now is that very few councils are insisting on using docks for their e-scooter trials, meaning e-scooters are ending up in our canals, car parks, and tips. Councils are repeating the mistakes they made with dockless cycles, and it will be a major detriment to the UK’s urban hubs if the option of scooting is taken away.
Our streets are not the play or dumping grounds for free-floating e-scooter companies. Councils need to put convenience, reliability, and safety to the fore, so locals can enjoy the benefits and freedoms that can come with e-scooters, especially those on lower incomes who cannot afford a car or daily train travel.
COVID has given us an (unwanted) opportunity to change the way we move around cities. We can either complain about the pandemic’s restrictions on our freedoms or invent new ones that respect the current reality. E-scooting gives us a way to keep one of the few benefits of the pandemic – cleaner air – while eventually getting us safely back to work.
Lady Norman wasn’t wrong; she was simply ahead of her time. Now it’s time for councils to embrace the future.