Could Electric Scooters be the Future for Cities?

Electric scooters create less congestion and pollution, but they are yet to take off in cities around the world. We investigate

Travel around any city in the world, from Brussels to Beijing, and you’re likely to get stuck in a traffic jam. Cars belching out toxic fumes leads to serious air pollution that causes health problems for millions of people.

One possible solution to the congestion and pollution is the electric scooter. They have a lot going for them: they’re small, quiet, manoeuvrable, clean and flexible - the ideal vehicle for negotiating the city streets. Scooter services have sprung up in hundreds of cities around the world, clocking up millions of miles of journeys in the process.

The field is fairly crowded, with start-ups such as Lime and Bird from the US, Circ in Germany and Sweden’s Voi competing for space in the market with carmakers such as Daimler and VW, and ride-hailing firms such as Uber. Even Usain Bolt has started a scooter company.

You can see why. On the one hand, there is growing pressure to cut the amount of petrol and diesel vehicles to cut pollution. At the same time, as more people live in cities and buy cars, our roads are increasingly crowded, leading to pressure to reduce the number of all cars in cities. 

“E-scooters offer an alternative to existing mobility options and provide a smart and swift solution for journeys – helping to alleviate traffic congestion and promote cleaner air,” says Jaanaki Momaya, General Manager UK at Lime.

The more attractive the alternatives are, the less people will want to use cars

“At the heart of the challenge are two related behaviours: the overwhelming majority of cars carry only the driver; and most journeys are short, covering merely a few kilometres in distance,” says Boris Muttermüeller, COO of Circ, which has just announced plans to launch e-scooter services in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg. 

Schemes such as ride sharing are “unsurprisingly shifting towards more rigid routes and scheduling, which is reminiscent of public transport,” Muttermüeller says. “Yet studies repeatedly suggest the main reason people don’t use public transport already is that the nearest metro or tram stop is too far away.” 

E-scooters could be the ideal tool to get travellers to and from buses, metros and trains. “One of the main uses of e-scooters is in allowing users to complete the first and last miles of their journeys, filling in the gaps where public transport ends,” Momaya says.

Sten Saar, CEO of insurtech firm Zego, points out that, out on the road they cause no pollution. He adds: “(They) could drastically reduce congestion by taking up minimal space on the roads and in parking zones, with 10 scooters able to fit into one car space. Shared e-scooter services are also great for those who don’t want the expense and responsibility that comes with ownership.”

In general, Ana Nicholls, director of Industry Operations at The Economist Intelligence Unit, says, “people choose whatever means of transport is most convenient for them, and e-scooters have definite advantages over bikes or electric bikes. 

“The biggest is that they are more portable, which means that they can be used in combination with public transport and there is less need to look for somewhere to park them. That makes them useful for people who live further away from metro stops, for example. The more attractive the alternatives are, the less people will want to use cars – particularly if measures are in place to make driving difficult anyway.” 

And yet, despite their convenience and adaptability, opinions are mixed on e-scooters. You only have to look at the position of city and national authorities around the world to see that. Santa Monica and San Francisco, early recipients of the scooters, have capped the number available for rent and until recently they were banned in New York and all of Germany. They’re still banned throughout the UK.So what’s the problem? Well, scooter companies like Lime and Bird didn’t help themselves by following in the footsteps of ride sharing services like Uber and shared bike services, charging into cities first and then dealing with any regulations after. 

Santa Monica filed a criminal complaint against Bird and San Francisco banned Lime and Bird, issuing licences to two smaller providers, Skip and Scoot, but only for 625 vehicles each and for a two-year pilot study.

As well as complaints that the scooters were just being abandoned on pavements, there are also reports of growing numbers of accidents – last month a man riding a Voi scooter was killed in Helsingborg in Sweden the day after the vehicles were introduced in the city and a Parisian rider died after being hit by a truck.

There have also been questions about how sustainable the machines are, with data from Louisville, Kentucky suggesting that the average lifespan of a scooter in the city was less than 30 days. 

The industry is working to solve many of these issues. Carlos Bhola, Circ’s co-founder, says his company has designed a more durable machine that will last around 12 months, and many others have done the same. 

“It’s not good for the environment to have a machine with such a short life and it’s not good for business. We have come up with a component-based design so we can swap parts out as they wear out and our batteries are designed to last two to three times longer than the scooters, so they can be transferred to new vehicles.”

Bhola says Circ is also looking at using geo-fencing technology to ensure scooters stay in the right lane, slow down at pedestrian crossings and to encourage people to park their scooters considerately in return for a discount on their next ride, along with audio directions so riders don’t have to take their eyes off the road.

The companies are also coming to realise the benefits of working with regulators rather than antagonising them. Many cities see the value in the technology but resent being bumped into adopting it before they are ready.  

Nonetheless, it seems likely that the market for electric scooters will force a change in regulation, as part of the trend to reallocate road space away from cars and towards pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders.

“In order to be a viable option, electric scooters need to be regulated just as bicycles are,” says Simon Dixon, global transportation leader at Deloitte. “Regulations such as no riding on the pavement in some cities, parking only in designated spots, and mandatory safety equipment are all likely to be considered. In some cases, such as in London, they need to be regulated into existence, as at present they are banned.”

At the same time, some of the other building blocks for an e-scooter ecosystem are emerging as well. Insurtech firm Zego says there is a need for new, pay-as-you-go insurance products to cover riders. 

Momaya adds: “We share many of the same priorities as local policy makers and want to work with them as they establish a regulatory framework for this future. Cities are changing fast - and so are solutions for mobility.”

As regulators, businesses and users catch up with the possibilities created by e-scooters, they are likely to become an increasingly important part of the urban landscape.