Everything you need to know about electric scooters and the UK’s stance on them.

The last 12 months have seen a dramatic change to everyday life, and the way we get around is no exception. COVID-19 has made us understandably wary of packed busses and tube carriages, so people have started looking at other, more socially-distanced ways of getting from A to B.

Chief among them has been bikes. Some 1.3 million Brits bought a bicycle during (the first) lockdown, while Halfords has reported a 230% increase in demand for electric bikes. Fast forward to the end of the year, and electric scooters were at the top of many Christmas lists, with sales trebling within a year and Halfords reporting that October alone saw sales of the zippy personal transport gadgets up a massive 450% on the previous year.

This is curious, because e-scooters remain illegal in the UK.

Why are electric scooters illegal in the UK?

The use of electric scooters has been commonplace around Europe and other parts of the world for some time now – the UK is one of the last remaining countries to introduce them to public roads. Right now, the only place e-scooters can legally be ridden is on private land, with permission from the landowner. Otherwise, it’s illegal to use them on public roads, on pavements, in cycle lanes and in pedestrian-only areas. Anyone found to riding an e-scooter in these places can be hit with a £300 fine.

This is because e-scooters are currently classed as ‘powered transporters’ by the government and fall under the same laws and regulations that apply to all motor vehicles. This makes their use on pavements, in cycle lanes and in pedestrian-only areas illegal (you wouldn’t use a car in these areas) and their use on public roads would only be legal if they could meet the same requirements as motor vehicles in terms of insurance, tax, license and registration, which they don’t.

As such, e-scooters won’t become an accepted mode of transport until the government sorts out proper legislation for them.

Will e-scooters become legal in the UK?

The government is working on it, albeit slowly compared to our European counterparts. Following the imposition of future bans on the sale of petrol and diesel-powered cars, and a declared commitment to a ‘green recovery’ from COVID-19, authorities are looking at transport alternatives, and e-scooters – mentioned explicitly in the government’s £2 billion green transport package – will certainly be part of that.

But the government can’t just give e-scooters the green light overnight. As well as the legislative changes needed, there are concerns around safety and misuse. This is why many councils around the UK are conducting e-scooter trials. Around 30 trials are currently under way and the results will help inform a decision on how e-scooters might be legalised.

How do e-scooter trials work?

Each region’s scheme is slightly different, depending on the provider. In Newcastle, for example, Neuron mobility will be deploying 250 orange e-scooters early this year, and they’ll operate in much the same way as the existing bike-hire schemes already in place in cities around the UK.

According to Neuron, geofencing technology will control where its scooters can be ridden or parked and how fast they can travel in different areas , and there are plans to create slow-zones, no-ride zones and no-parking zones.

Each scooter will have an attached safety helmet which can only be released when the scooter is booked via an app, as well as a voice guidance system, a 999 emergency button, and a ‘Follow My Ride’ feature which will allow riders to share their trip with friends and family. They’ll also have a ‘topple detection’ feature that alerts the company if a scooter has fallen over or been left abandoned on its side, so it can be retrieved. 

In Essex, a company called Spin has been given permission to roll out 50 of its e-scooters to trial participants. Each participant gets exclusive access to an e-scooter, as well as insurance, a helmet, a charging cable, 24/7 customer support and maintenance, for a monthly fee of £55. Spin’s scooters are also equipped with geofencing tech.

Meanwhile, London is set to start its trials this spring, with an initial 60-150 e-scooters deployed to each borough. It’s not yet clear which companies will operate these, but Bird has expressed interest. Bird has been operating rental e-scooters (with special permission) for two years in London’s Olympic Park. It only allows its scooters to be ridden by people over 18 and provides free helmets, which the riders keep. It costs £1 to ‘unlock’ an e-scooter in the Olympic Park and 23p a minute to ride, but this rate is expected to be reduced in the London borough trials to about 15p a minute.

Will people actually use electric scooters?

Given the pre-Christmas rush for e-scooters it would be easy to write them off as gimmicky novelties, but these trials wouldn’t be in place if there wasn’t a real and meaningful demand for them. According to Spin’s previous trials in Milton Keynes, 63% of riders used an e-scooter instead of driving when they had the opportunity to do so. Meanwhile, research by Halfords shows that more than 70% of adults would use an e-scooter for short journeys instead of driving. This is the kind of behaviour the government is keen to encourage, helping the UK to meet its sustainability targets and become a greener nation.

What are the benefits of electric scooters?

The main appeal of e-scooters is that they’re a fast and flexible way to get around, and it’s a very cheap way to travel.

What are the disadvantages of e-scooters?

Not disadvantages as such, but limitations... They’re only really suitable for short journeys as they require frequent charging, plus you’ll need somewhere to store them. Theft is also a potential problem, given the inherent nature of the device. And until the government decides on proper legislation for them, there are safety concerns – accidents could be common.

How much does an e-scooter cost?

Prices range from around £150 for a basic model up to more than £1,000 for a top-of-the-range scooter. Generally speaking, the more expensive the model, the better the battery life and charge time.

How do you charge an electric scooter?

Unlike electric cars, which need a special charging port, electric scooters can be charged at home in the same way that you’d charge a mobile phone, straight from the electrical outlet.

So when will e-scooters become legal in the UK?

There are no specific dates on the agenda as yet, although most of these trials will run for around 12 months, and then there will need to be a period of consultation. Some experts have suggested that we might see a decision made by April 2022, so while 2021 may not be the year of the e-scooter, it’s certainly set to be crucial in getting us there.

The bottom line

Electric scooters are a convenient and green way to get around, but they’re still illegal in the UK. This year could prove pivotal in legislation that changes that, however, and come 2022 we could all be getting from A to B in a much more climate-friendly way.

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