What the future of e-scooters might look like

Despite concerns over safety, Irish legislators need to update laws in light of growing popularity

Officially speaking, Spin can’t run its service in Ireland because there’s no legislation allowing for e-scooters. Photograph: iStock

Officially speaking, Spin can’t run its service in Ireland because there’s no legislation allowing for e-scooters. Photograph: iStock

 

It’s probably one of those things that, if you’re in your early 20s and blessed with the perfect balance of youth, feels utterly natural. If you’re 45, and your centre of gravity is a good foot higher up than it was in your teenage years, riding an e-scooter feels more like an elongated suicide message.

Ahead of legislation, due to come before the Dáil by the end of this year, to render their use legal there are already plenty of people zipping around on e-scooters, and – damn them – they all look young, healthy, and thoroughly well balanced.

Although the first few minutes were a slightly terrifying blur of it being quicker than I expected (the top speed, in unlimited mode, is more than 20km/h) and far trickier to achieve a balance than I feared, by the end I was kind of getting the hang of it, and actually starting to smile as much as I was internally screaming.

Spin, which in 2017 launched the first “stationless mobility programme” (which means you can just grab one off the street) scooters in Seattle, is actually owned by Ford. In fact, officially, Spin is the “micromobility unit of the Ford Motor Company”. It’s one of a number of start-ups and spinoffs trying to cash-in on a seemingly ever-growing trend – last mile transport.

The theory is thus – you drive a car, catch a bus, or take a train but none of those forms of transport actually drop you to the door. City centre layouts being what they are, the car park might be some distance away from your actual destination. Ditto the bus stop. Almost certainly the train station. So, to whisk you that last little distance to where you’re going, you step on one of these – strap on a helmet (Spin advises you to and frankly you’d be nuts not to wear one), push off with one foot, and then the electric motor takes over.

You squeeze a little throttle trigger with your right thumb, and the brakes work from a handle by your left hand (with a second, backup, brake lever at your right). Steering is by turning, leaning, and generally yelping in panic until it goes where you want.

Officially speaking, Spin can’t run its service in Ireland because there’s no legislation allowing for e-scooters. Technically they’re a powered vehicle – they have a power source that drives a wheel, so technically you need tax and insurance. That hasn’t stopped many individuals side-stepping the rules, but Spin’s a big corporate entity, so it can’t.

“Ireland presents such a fantastic opportunity for us,” says Antony Jackson, Spin’s UK-based head of strategy and growth. “We fully recognise that that everything is not quite set in stone at the moment, there is no legislation in place, but we are preparing as best we can. The approach we’ve taken in the UK is a collaborative approach working with city officials and then and then any third-party interest groups. We are starting to engage with those people, the people that mean that we can build a tailored solution, if and when the legislation changes in Ireland.”

Dublin Bus is looking at potentially including e-scooters as part of its services, allowing commuters to make the last leg of their journeys from the bus stop to their final destination. Whether that means simply having e-scooter racks at major stops, or some kind of combined bus ticket and scooter hire, Dublin Bus isn’t yet saying. In fact, it’s being quite cagey – a spokesperson told The Irish Times that: “We are currently exploring our plans in this area. When e-scooters are introduced into a city in a responsible manner and with proper regulation and if we proceed this would require us partnering with a mircomobility operator.”

That reference to “a responsible manner” highlights one of the major concerns over e-scooters – safety.

With their small wheels, and lacking the natural gyroscopic stability of a bicycle, there’s certainly a general impression that e-scooters are less than entirely safe. Most operators insist that you at least wear a helmet when using one, but the jury is still officially out on whether they are actively dangerous. Noting a rise in accidents in London involving e-scooters last year, the Metropolitan Police Service described them as “notoriously dangerous”.

Crashes involving e-scooters were “underreported” said the London police, and noted that they had seized 268 scooters and issued official warnings to more than 600 riders. Some of the seized scooters were said to have been modified to hit speeds of up to 110km/h.

On the other hand, the German federal statistics office (Statistisches Bundesamt) found that accidents involving e-scooters were at a very low rate. E-scooters have been approved for use in Germany since 2019, but last year’s figures showed that out of 264,000 accidents resulting in personal injury, only one per cent involved an e-scooter. By contrast, 91,500 such incidents involved bicycles, although that could be in part a representation of how much more popular bicycles are than e-scooters at present.

How popular could e-scooters become? Spin has had some success in the UK market, where it has been running pilot programmes in Essex and in Milton Keynes. In Essex, a Spin-administered survey of users found that 82 per cent of those using its service had, at least once, used an e-scooter for a short journey where they would have previously used a car. That is, clearly, a social good – fewer emissions, fewer localised pollutants, less traffic congestion. Spin’s users are also taking scooters to connect with public transport options, while others have said that they feel safer using a scooter, and being out in the air, than they do taking a bus or train during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is some devil in the detail, though. According to Spin’s own figures, some 38 per cent of people said that they took a scooter instead of walking, which given that the obesity epidemic in many countries is a serious health issue, is maybe not the best thing. Indeed, a 2020 research paper from two teams of scientists from Arizona State University and Ryerson University in Canada found that “e-scooters disproportionately replace walking and bicycling for all trip types”.

Spin’s UK public relations manager, Borbala Nagy, counters that concern by noting: “Our scooters can actually give people the time and space that they need to take exercise. By using them for commuting, they can arrive at meetings and so on without getting all sweaty and tired, and then can take exercise in their leisure time. One user wrote to us to say that she used a Spin e-scooter to get home after a 10k run, for example.”

That’s a fair point, but other disagree. Personal trainer Karl Henry says that: “From a physical perspective, e-scooters are just another modernisation of our society that gets our bodies to do less and less. They do nothing for our bodies when we use them, so walking or cycling are much better, and cheaper, for us.”

Nonetheless, e-scooters are coming and coming thick and fast. Ford is not alone in its appreciation of such tech – last year, Seat Ireland launched its eXS Kick e-scooter, which can be ordered as an option that fits into the boot of your Leon or Ateca. Niall Phillips, brand director at Seat Ireland says: “While selling high value four-wheel vehicles will remain the core offering of Seat Ireland, we have to be cognisant of changing consumer demand and the need to adapt our product range to meet this demand. Innovation is at the heart of what we do and with recent years witnessing a shift in the mobility needs of the Irish public, particularly in urban areas, we are both delighted and excited to be the first car manufacturer to introduce a new form of mobility to the market.”

Seat won an award from Fleet Transport for its scooters, thanks to a programme that saw scooters provided to the staff of the Mater hospital in Dublin at the height of the pandemic. They allowed staff to get around between buildings, and even to commute in some cases, while avoiding crowded public transport in a pre-vaccine world.

“These selfless healthcare workers have been working tirelessly to keep us all safe and we were delighted to be able to support them by providing these vehicles during this time,” Phillips says.

One future of e-scooters will be about more than avoiding Covid-19 clusters on buses, and Spin is looking at the potential for closer ties between itself and its paymasters at Ford. “We are doing trials of multi-modal transport systems in the US,” says Jackson. “We’d love to see that sort of thing over here, where we can start to see – within one consumer-facing point – both cars and scooters being offered for use, what we call mobility as a service.”

Business Today

Get the latest business news and commentarySIGN UP HERE
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.