Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The e- scooter invasion - A little detour about personal mobility*

This e-scooter casually leaning against a fence caught me by surprise

 

I saw my first electric scooter late on Friday night when my son rolled up on one after his office Christmas party. The e-scooters had only been launched in Hobart the day before. The next day on the way to town, I saw them everywhere. There they were – lounging outside the library, standing at attention outside the theatre and mingling in the mall. I even saw two people riding them. I would have jumped on one on the spot if I hadn’t had both hands full of shopping. I was quite chuffed though that our normally rather conservative city was giving them a trial. 

 

A Beam patiently waiting outside the theatre

Two companies are providing e- scooter services here – purple coloured Beam and  Orange Neuron and there around 300 of each. It looks like a fun, exciting way to get around our narrow, crowded streets, especially with summer coming on. Tasmania’s second biggest city, Launceston also has them, but only about 200 of each. According to the Mercury Newspaper, both cities clocked up 10,000 riders each in their first four days.

E-scooters have been proliferating in many European cities and the USA since 2017. Brisbane began the trend in Australia in 2018 and a number of other cities such as Adelaide, Ipswich, Townsville, Canberra, Ballarat, Esperance, and parts of Melbourne and Sydney have either started running trials or are soon to follow suit. When Lime began operating in Brisbane in 2018, it had 50,000 riders in its first two weeks. In the rest of the world US companies such as Lime and Bird quickly expanded throughout the USA and Europe, while Scandinavian companies such as Voi (Sweden) and Bolt (Estonia) expanded into distant cities such as Dubai, Tokyo and Shanghai. By July 2019 scooter companies had established themselves in over 100 cities.

One of the advantages of being a late starter is that you can avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by early adopters.

Mingling in the mall - pity there's no luggage compartment. Average cost in Hobart is around 45 cents per minute. Beam also has a $1 flagfall of which you get .50c back if you park it in a designated parking area.


The road to E-scooter happiness hasn't been entirely smooth

First movers have had to learn the hard way. By the summer of 2020, Oslo had 30,000 e-scooters, Stockholm had 23,000 and Copenhagen had 7,000. Increasingly there were complaints about bikes being abandoned on footpaths and concerns about the growing number of accidents and the risks to the elderly and the disabled. In Copenhagen twelve e-scooters were found in the river and one ended up in a rubbish bin.

In October 2020 normally bike -friendly Copenhagen banned all 13 companies which were operating in the city. This year it has relented somewhat, but has introduced a number of restrictions including only allowing hire firms which had physical premises and not allowing e-scooters within the CBD. Oslo capped e-scooters at 8,000 shared between each of 12 operators. London banned e-scooters in public spaces altogether though cities such as Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry are still giving them a try. Paris limited e-scooters to speeds of 20 mph and introduced heavy fines for poor behaviour. Helsinki banned night riding (midnight to 5 a.m.) to limit the likelihood of drunken patrons. Amsterdam has limited their use on public roads. 

These days companies wishing to operate in cities have learned to co -operate with local councils and focus more on those which have established bike paths for safer riding. Advances in technology have also made a difference. There’s no longer need for central charging and digital tracking means e-scooters aren’t being left around. Safety features include low speed for beginners, pedestrian and bad driver detection and not being able to park in a non -parking zone. At least one company gives you a discount for returning bikes to designated parking areas. If a rider goes too fast or into a no -go zone, the bike automatically slows down or ceases to operate. Helmets are compulsory in Tasmania and e-scooters are restricted to those over 16.

Safety studies conducted in Brisbane show that the number of accidents has gone down – there are about as many as for cyclists, as has the number of abandoned e-scooters. However, the laws in Australia still vary from state to state. Tasmania changed its road rules to permit riding on footpaths and on low -speed roads  i.e. Those with a 50 Kmph speed limit or less) while Victoria still doesn’t allow riding on footpaths. Melbourne is rightly cautious after its disastrous obike rollout in 2018 which resulted in piles of e-bikes cluttering up footpaths, ending up in the river and even up a tree and forcing the operator out of business, but it is allowing new trials in St. Kilda. Brisbane allows riding on footpaths but not in the CBD streets or main roads.


E-scooting into the future 

The latest and greatest advance is integrating e-scooter ride shares with Google Maps, showing where the nearest available e-scooters are located. Companies and cities are also working to link them with existing transport such as buses and trains so that people can travel seamlessly not just for that “last mile” between the office and the bus station or around the CBD to the nearest coffee shop, but from surrounding regions and eventually to other places, opening up mobility to those who live outside the CBD as well as sightseers and commuters.

Insurance for those who are injured is still lacking as are adequately separated transit lanes which would stop putting cyclists, motorists or pedestrians at risk. I personally would also like to see some provision for shopping bags -bicycle baskets or panniers perhaps, as I rarely come back from the city or the market empty handed. I am also fairly certain that the aim of our city fathers leaders in allowing e-scooters in the city is precisely to keep us there longer and spending money at local businesses. I read somewhere that every ten e-scooters generate one job and they certainly have novelty value.Son says they need to improve a lot of our footpaths if they want people to rely on them for commuting. Cracks and tree roots make for a rough ride.

On the environmental side they can be congestion busters and they can reduce pollution, but how green they are depends on their source of energy both when charging and in manufacture since these account for 95% of their emissions. Current research suggests that they are unlikely to take many cars off the road since trips tend to complement car and bus use, but according to Lime CEO Mitchell Price, as reported in the Australian Financial Review, if the shared e-scooters could be made to last longer – even just 2 years rather than one, and charged with green energy, multiplying that by 65 million trips in 25 countries would save around 8000 tonnes of CO2 or about the amount produced by 2000 cars in Australia over a year.

According to the same article most e-scooter companies have yet to make a profit, however, their fortunes are likely to change within the next year or two, whereas it took Uber twelve years to do so and Amazon about nine, proving that it's not easy to introduce whole new concepts, but once again, these are interesting times and this is just another of the great new experiments going on. Car makers and even petrol companies are taking note. Ford has acquired US e-scooter company Spin which has operations in 84 cities, towns and campuses, from Canada to Spain. BMW and Daimler have partnered with German E-Scooter Company Tier to include its Free Now app. BP has partnered with Italian e- scooter maker Piaggio for a big roll out in Asia and Europe. Meanwhile California's Bird, is doubling its fleet in the EU and elsewhere. India's car rideshare giant Ola is building out charging points exclusively for two wheelers and Dutch e-scooter company Go Sharing is expanding into Antwerp and Vienna. The list just goes on and on. Read more here.


*I haven't forgotten about decarbonising Big Ships, but thought the e-scooters might just be more immediately relevant to more people, unless you happen to be a shipping magnate. I you do happen to be a shipping magnate, don't worry, your post is coming up after Christmas along with aviation.

Stoppress: Heheh. Just attempted to ride a Beam. I haven't quite got the 'glide like a swan bit right yet.' Really annoying watching people do just that. My voyage was short and spectacular. It was on a steep uphill. First it wouldn't start, then a man yelled out from his ute." You've got to walk with it a bit, then get on!" As soon as I did that the scooter got out from under me and threw me in a ditch. I must have gone all of 40 metres, but I don't think I'll show you my war wounds. They aren't very pretty. But don't think I'm giving up. I just heard that they have e-scooter hoons in Canberra who do wheelies and donuts. I can only wish, but they must have more money than sense.

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