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Could COVID-19 revolutionise the daily commute? A review of the new e-scooter trials in the UK

Matthew Morris recognises the use of e-scooters in response to travelling during COVID-19.

Since the easing of lockdown and the beginning of a return to normality, an increasing number of people are returning to their places of work. However, many commuters rely on public transport to get to their offices, something which the Government wants to avoid to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. One form of transportation which has taken the rest of Europe and the US by storm is the e-scooter. Similar to a traditional push scooter but with a battery-powered motor attached, the e-scooter seems like an interesting candidate to encourage people away from crowded buses and trains. The UK has been slow to adopt any change in policy to allow these e-scooters on to public streets; e-scooters have previously been banned from use on UK roads, cycleways or public footpaths, with use only permitted on private land. This is partly down to concerns regarding the safety of e-scooters - of both the rider as well as bystanders. There have been numerous incidences in cities such as Paris and Berlin regarding deaths associated with e-scooters, with riders colliding with motor vehicles as well as collisions of riders with pedestrians. As well as abroad, accidents have been reported in the UK with people illegally riding privately-owned e-scooters on public roads. In July 2019, Emily Hartridge, a TV presenter and YouTube personality, was killed after she collided with a lorry while riding her e-scooter in London.

Despite the concerns over safety, the UK Government had planned to start trials of rental e-scooters in 2021. However, in May, the Government announced that, specifically as a result of COVID-19, the trial of rental e-scooters would be brought forward to summer 2020. The trial would include Birmingham, amongst other cities, but surprisingly not London. This new legislation only applies to rental e-scooters with licensed providers, making the use of privately-owned e-scooters still illegal on public roads. In Birmingham, the Swedish start-up Voi has been given the license to run e-scooter rental in the city. To be granted this license, they had to meet stringent new regulations outlined by the UK Government. To ride a rental e-scooter, you must possess a full or provisional UK driving license, have full motor insurance for the e-scooter (this is provided by the rental company) and have a speed restriction of 15.5 MPH, with a lower limit of 5 MPH in pedestrianised areas.

So, why is this significant? This is a major step by the Government into a new way to commute. Although many doubt the usefulness of an e-scooter compared to a traditional bike, their popularity in other major European cities is evident and this trial shows the Government is committed to introducing new forms of environmentally friendly transport. There is already evidence that people’s commutes have been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cycling has become much more popular than before, with cycling levels at 300% above normal at its peak during the pandemic. The move away from public transport has also clearly been seen, with trips down 90% compared to pre-pandemic levels in April. Although this has climbed back up following lockdown easing, they are still nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels. This major shift in commuter habits has resulted in both challenges and opportunities, but the Government must tread carefully when introducing new modes of transport to cities. Effort must be taken to make sure this new trend in private transportation can be implemented safely and effectively.

From COVID-19 mini issue, 2020

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