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It’s time to liberate Britain with an e-scooter revolution

It’s time to liberate Britain with an e-scooter revolution

Over the coming months, they can be used to avoid crowds on public transport In 1776, British inventors James Watt and Matthew Boulton documented the first steam engine at a coal mine just outside of Birmingham. This invention, later adapted for use on steamships and trains, marked humanity’s fightback against the tyranny of distance. For…

Over the coming months, they can be used to avoid crowds on public transport

In 1776, British inventors James Watt and Matthew Boulton documented the first steam engine at a coal mine just outside of Birmingham. This invention, later adapted for use on steamships and trains, marked humanity’s fightback against the tyranny of distance. For most of history, we could only travel as far as our feet or camels would allow. The world would soon become our oyster.

We are on the cusp of another transport revolution: e-scooters. But this time the UK has fallen behind because of archaic laws dating as far back as 1835 that, collectively, form an effective ban on the devices.

E-scooters are liberating. You are in total control; able to whiz safely around town to see friends and get home to family. They can be used for the first and last mile of a journey, providing transport for people who live in towns and the outskirts of cities who lack other options. Importantly over the coming months, they can be used to avoid crowds on public transport while remaining mobile to support friends and family. For many, this could mean otherwise unattainable transport freedom.

The first dockless e-scooter schemes were launched in September 2017. They are now available for rent in over 600 cities worldwide. There have been over 300 million rides. The industry could be worth as much as $500 billion by 2030, according to a study by McKinsey.  

This week the Government finally announced that they will begin consulting on legalising e-scooters. The review will also consider other ‘micromobility’ devices such as electric skateboards, self-balancing scooters and Segways.

The plan is to trial the new devices in four ‘Future Transport Zones,’ including Portsmouth and Southampton, Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol & South Gloucestershire, Derby and Nottingham, and West Midlands.

While every day of delay is a lost opportunity, the openness to legalise is very welcome. There are immense benefits not only to our freedom but also to the environment, the economy and the underprivileged. One-third of e-scooter rides replace car rides, helping reduce CO2 emissions and NOx pollutants. They help bust congestion, which cost the UK economy £8 billion in 2018. They have had substantial uptake among vulnerable communities that are under-served by public transport.

The mooted approach of the Government, however, is disappointing. There is a need for some sensible regulations on speed limits and riding locations, including limiting to roads and cycle paths. Local authorities will also need to be involved in some of the physical infrastructure, including ensuring cycle paths are up to scratch and parking spots reserved to avoid pavement clutter. They should also have the ability to decide local ‘geo-fencing’ to prevent use in certain areas. But the Government’s approach is excessively precautionary and paternalistic. This will undermine this revolutionary technology.

The consultation document states the intent to “regulate the user to manage the risk” to themselves. This paternalistic clap-trap means mandating the likes of helmets. People should wear the likes of helmets when using bicycles and e-scooters. But that decision is self-referencing, the risk is to the individual whether they wear a helmet or not. In a free society, we should have that choice. Other regulations, such as requiring licences and insurance, are based on a deeply flawed comparison to mopeds. Mopeds are faster and have larger engines. The proposed requirements will substantially increase costs and reduce the uptake of this new technology.

The UK’s approach to e-scooters is out of step with almost every other country and inconsistent with the evidence. The more apt comparison is to bicycles, which have similar speeds and comparable injury rates. The OECD’s International Transport Forum recently concluded that e-scooters are safer than cars and motorcycles, particularly for other pedestrians, and could increase road safety by reducing car trips. They also found that road fatalities are no higher on e-scooters compared to bicycles, and emergency room visit risk is similar. We do not require helmets, insurance or licences to use bicycles, so why should we with e-scooters?

Every new transport technology carries risks and attracts opposition. In the 19th century, there were efforts to ban bicycles.  In the UK, doctors complained that they were a “dangerous annoyance”. San Francisco banned them entirely in the 1880s, and bicycles were banned in New York’s Central Park in 1883.

Once again, we must reject the naysayers and embrace this new technology.

Matthew Lesh is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute and author of the report, ‘Safe to Scoot: How legalising e-scooters will save lives, bust congestion and help the environment’.

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