Electric scooters this month became available to rent in a number of London boroughs through three different operators.
It is part of a year-long trial to measure the two-wheelers’ viability as an alternative mode of transport, in keeping with the UK capital’s bid to become greener.
But only a few weeks into the pilot, reports of a number of accidents and inappropriate usage are raising serious safety concerns. Hundreds of privately owned scooters, which remain illegal to ride in public, have also been seized by police.
So is the novelty already turning into a nuisance? A visit to one London neighbourhood suggests an intrigued but wary reaction to the new vehicles for hire.
Young people like Buck certainly find them fun to cruise around on. “I think they kind of do help after a night out if you want to get home quickly and don’t want to get on the bus,” he told The National outside one of the e-scooter bays in Notting Hill. But as a cyclist and pedestrian he has concerns that no proper safety etiquette is in place yet.
“What I'm most scared about is people with their air pods in, cruising around and not really taking anything in or paying attention.”
There is legitimate reason to be fearful. Despite their relatively slow speed – currently capped at 20kmph in London – a number of e-scooter related injuries, some fatal, have highlighted the danger involved.
This month a young man was the second known person to die from an e-scooter accident in the UK after he crashed into a car in Wolverhampton. In 2019 a young women died after being hit by a lorry while scooting around London’s Battersea. Other recent incidents, including that of a 6-year-old whose skull was fractured after being hit by a rider, and a 3-year-old who was injured by another, have led police to take more proactive measures.
After a surge of uninsured private e-scooters hit London’s streets, police launched patrols, removing more than 500 in a week. Officers also spent their ‘week of action’ communicating the rules of use to those hiring the vehicles.
"Riders using e-scooters on the road risk fines, points on their licence and e-scooter seizures if they continue to use them on public road networks," said Metropolitan Police Chief Supt Simon Ovens.
The rules for renting are fairly straightforward. Riders must be 18 or over, have a full or provisional licence and use a mobile phone app to complete mandatory training before unlocking an e-scooter. The most important, but often ignored, rule of all is that they cannot be used on the pavements.
Nevertheless, London’s narrow roads and limited – albeit now expanding - lanes for non-motorised vehicles are causing confusion for some.
As they parked their e-scooters back at the hiring bay, first-timer users Alex and Issa said they enjoyed the ride but found the scooters too slow for the road and too fast for the pavements. Finding himself either sandwiched between cars on narrow roads or among the glares of pedestrians on the pavement, Alex wasn’t entirely convinced the e-scooters have a place on the streets at the moment. “You don't really know what the law is, what the actual rules are. So it feels quite vague. It feels quite lawless. And you feel like you're just a bit of a thorn in everyone's side.”
Robert, a resident in the area, said he would buy his own e-scooter to ride in public if and when it becomes legal to do so, because of their environmental friendliness. But even that is up for some debate as the sustainability of e-scooters comes under increasing scrutiny. While they are emission-free at the point of use, shareable e-scooters have a relatively short life-cycle and the process of manufacturing, moving and charging has raised questions about how eco-friendly they are.
One thing is for sure, they’re fun to ride. The freedom, independence and ease of simply standing on a two-wheeler and zipping around a congested city is undoubtedly appealing. Nevertheless, without the proper infrastructure and awareness in place, a cramped train or gas-guzzling vehicle might still be the enduring way to get around.