Matthew Pencharz: London needs to make the most of electric scooters and bikes

Matthew Pencharz: London needs to make the most of electric scooters and bikes

Boris Johnson has long since moved on from being Mayor of London and won’t go down in history as one of the great Prime Ministers. But he left his mark on the capital in an undeniably positive way with the successful launch of London’s cycle hire scheme in 2010.

Since then, Boris Bikes, as many people still call them, currently sponsored by Santander, have become a fixture on London’s streets. They’ve also had some competition over the past decade or so, first from the flash in the pan appearances of Ofo and Mobike and now from the arrival of e-bikes and e-scooters.

Hopefully, these will be longer-lasting. The market for such dockless micromobility modes clearly exists. It is already illustrated by the huge numbers of people using the vehicles and is potentially much bigger. Some two-thirds of London’s car journeys are less than five kilometres in length, and although some of these can only be made by private car many could be completed more sustainably, whether by walking, by private bike or by using a shared micromobility vehicle.

It is vital to give people a choice of sustainable modes. Voi, the company of which I am Head of Policy for the UK, Ireland and France, has seen some 33 million rides completed by 1.5 million people since we launched in September 2020, most of them on e-scooters and others on e-bikes.

People use them to commute to work, travel to the shops and to get to social occasions, with the key age range 25-35. Rental e-scooters are not frivolous toys. They have become an important part of the transport system of towns and cities across England, including London. I prefer cycling, but I am not everyone. Some will prefer to take an e-scooter, including those who have a disability that makes cycling a challenge.

The introduction of this new transport mode has inevitably met controversy. The regulatory situation remains opaque at best and for most people it is utterly mystifying. We have seen repeated calls for the current Mayor to get a grip on rental e-bikes being left strewn across pavements, creating a nuisance and a hazard for pavement users. What these Sadiq-hating pieces ignore is that the government hasn’t given the Greater London Authority, Transport for London or the capital’s boroughs real power to properly regulate them.

Meanwhile, the regulation of rental e-scooters is at the other end of the spectrum, being both incredibly proscriptive and completely confusing. The only legal rental schemes are in the boroughs taking part in the Department for Transport’s nationwide trial. Yet anyone can go to their local Halfords and buy a private e-scooter. Import figures suggest there are well over a million of these in the UK, almost all of them being ridden illegally on public roads.

Unfortunately, the government continually avoids communicating clearly to the public the difference between the legal trials and e-scooters’ illegal private use. Meanwhile, just 10 of the 32 boroughs are involved in the trials in London, which means that if riders cross the boundary between, say, Lambeth and Wandsworth or between Camden and Islington, their vehicle will come to a gentle stop. Who, beyond On London readers perhaps, knows where the borough boundaries are?

These trials are now approaching the fourth anniversary of what was supposed to be a one-year pilot. The Johnson national government announced legislation in summer 2022, before promptly collapsing. Rishi Sunak’s administration has recently extended the trials again, until May 2026, leaving them for the next government to (hopefully) sort out.

The long-grassing of the national regulation of dockless e-scooters and e-bikes is denying the UK the full benefit of the multi-billion pound micromobility market, together with the social and economic benefits these transport services can provide. It therefore falls to Mayor Khan, TfL and the boroughs to make the best of the situation, by trying to ensure the benefits are maximised and unwelcome impacts on pavement-users are minimised.

The micromobility industry has recently been somewhat unsettled, with firms going out of business, Tier and Dott announcing a merger and wider restructuring underway. These operators can deliver at no cost to the taxpayer, unlike providers of any other form of sustainable transport. However, it is a low margins business. That means services need to be convenient, in order to increase their use and ensure they are financially sustainable.

London’s e-scooter service could be much better if boroughs such as Islington and Hackney joined the scheme, and if there was better parking provision across the whole of the city. A report published last year stated that London needs another 10,000 parking places for micromobility vehicles by 2025.

It would be churlish to say that we have not made progress. Camden already has the densest network of parking and Lambeth is catching up, implementing its kerbside strategy with gusto and delivering hundreds of new parking spots on the road rather than on pavements. These measures encourage responsible parking and reduce pavement clutter. However, elsewhere the picture remains at best mixed.

Londoners and visitors alike deserve more sustainable transport options that are safe, convenient and affordable. And micromobility can give London vital help with meeting its modal shift target of 80 per cent of trips being made by a sustainable mode by 2041.

Whoever wins May’s election needs to use the convening power of the mayoralty and the weight of TfL to have further boroughs joining a co-ordinated scheme with regulation that is easily understood and enough parking to ensure it is convenient for Londoners and our visitors.

Matthew Pencharz is Voi’s Head of Policy for the UK, Ireland and France. Photo from TfL. Support OnLondon.couk and its writers for £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. Peter Lee says:

    These electric scooters are dangerous and should continue to be banned and the bans should be policed. They are not suitable to be on the roads and definitely not on the pavements. As shown they are also a major fire hazard so they are banned on public transport. Get rid of the things!

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