What to do about e-scooters?

5 Mar 2019

(image credit South Park)

There has been a lot of talk about e-scooters in transport and planning circles lately, with e-scooter hire schemes launching in Queensland and New Zealand.

So, are e-scooters a useful form of transport? If so, where do they fit – on the footpath, or on the road?

Victoria Walks has had a look at the issues in preparing a submission to the National Transport Commission. NTC are trying to come up with a consistent Australian approach to managing what they call ‘innovative vehicles’ – small powered vehicles which also include electric skateboards, unicycles, segways and hoverboards – as well as the more traditional mobility scooters.

Much of the apparent excitement around e-scooters stems from the assumption that they will be an alternative to cars.  Pretty much all the benefits of ‘innovative vehicles,’ as identified in the NTC issues paper, are based on the assumption that they will be used to replace car trips.

The problem is, the available evidence doesn’t back that assumption.

Portland, Oregon conducted user surveys as part of their 2018 e-scooter pilot. They found that if the e-scooter had not been available, 37% of people would have walked instead and only 19% would have driven a motor vehicle.

The international experience with e-scooters so far also suggests they create a number of problems, most notably:

  • E-scooters are capable of about 25 km/h, although they can have their speed mechanically limited.  Allowing ‘innovative vehicles’ to travel at speeds greater than 10 km/h on the footpath would pose potential injury risk to pedestrians and is likely to deter some people from walking, especially people who are older or have a disability.
  • E-scooters seem quite dangerous to use – in their first 4 months in New Zealand, e-scooters generated more than 1200 claims with the Accident Compensation Commission. The evidence around footpath cycling suggests there is no reason to believe that e-scooter riders would be safer on the footpath rather than the road.
  • ‘Innovative vehicles,’ especially those provided through a dockless hire scheme, are likely to be left at times in positions that block footpaths, with significant adverse impacts particularly on people in wheelchairs, mobility scooters or with prams.

You have to ask, if ‘innovative vehicles’ create problems and are more likely to replace walking than driving, do we really want them?

Perhaps there are other benefits that NTC haven’t identified (the Portland study suggests the most popular reason for using them is ‘just for fun,’ so there is that).

If we give e-scooters the benefit of the doubt, where do we put them?  In some places they are allowed on the footpath, in others they are only allowed on the road.

Victoria Walks says they should only be allowed on the footpath if mechanically limited to 10km/h.  Footpaths are the refuge of our most highly vulnerable road users – older people, parents and children, those with a disability. We can’t risk alienating them, especially if it is only so some fancy tech can be pushed to the max for a bit of fun.

Perhaps a better idea though would be to allow e-scooters at higher speeds, but only on the road and, even better, bicycle lanes or paths.  We should see these new technologies as an opportunity to re-design our streets, with new dedicated lanes for bikes and e-scooters, or low speed roads, not use footpaths as a ‘too hard basket’ to put them in.

Let’s use the enthusiasm for e-scooters and other ‘innovative vehicles’ to help build better cities.  Let’s get them working for us, not us working for them.

Read our submission

Have your say with the National Transport Commission (further consultation to occur later in the year)