Ready, set, go? After what seems like forever it looks as though e-scooters will soon be legally permitted on Irish roads. The Government approved draft legislation earlier this week that is now due before the Oireachtas, with expectations that it could be passed before Christmas or shortly after.
Before you get ready to hit the road, bear in mind that it could be many months before micromobility providers begin to offer rental services, which is most likely how most of us will become acquainted with e-scooters.
Aisling Dunne, a former special adviser to Shane Ross when he was minister for transport, and now head of public policy at e-scooter service provider Bolt, says she doesn't expect the Road Traffic and Roads Bill to face too much opposition when it comes before the Oireachtas. She estimates, that it may well be early 2022 before it is passed and then possibly late next year before operators can introduce rental schemes across the State.
“I’ve seen comments that the Bill will be passed before Christmas but I think that is very optimistic,” says Ms Dunne, adding that the Bill must go through a number of stages before being signed. Furthermore, the Minister for Climate and Transport has other priorities, including the carbon budgets.
"Realistically, it will be next year before the Bill is passed and then there is the drafting of secondary legislation and regulations, and potential input from the European Commission. It will only be when all this is sorted that local authorities will be able to issue tenders so we're looking at next summer or possibly even later before operators can launch services," she adds.
Legislation has already been significantly delayed. Former TD Noel Rock, who was one of the first politicians to push for e-scooters to be allowed here, recalls first discussing them with an unenthusiastic Ross back in 2018. Submissions were sought on the issue from interested parties a year later with the current Minister for Transport promising they would be legalised before last Christmas. Draft legislation was then included in the Summer Schedule, but it is only now that it is finally close to being completed.
Rock attributes the delay in part to provisions being included in a wide-ranging Bill that also contains, among other things, laws to deal with scramblers and quad bikes, legislation to support implementation of the BusConnects strategy, and the introduction of a variable speed limit system on the M50.
The good news at least for those with cash to splash is that individuals who can afford to buy their own e-scooter can ride them legitimately from early in 2022, so expect to see sales rocketing as we head into Christmas.
But while there are plenty of people relishing the prospect of being able to get around on e-scooters, there are others who are deeply concerned about the impact they may have on our cities and towns.
"E-scooters aren't the silver bullet for our transport issues," is how Dr Brian Caulfield of the centre for transport research in the department of engineering at Trinity College Dublin puts it.
Caulfield stresses that he isn't against e-scooters as such. But he is worried about whether sufficient care will be taken when permitting their use to ensure that we don't face the sort of issues that have affected other cities across Europe.
He cites the rollout of e-scooters in Paris as an example of just how badly things can go wrong. When it first allowed e-scooters in 2018, it ended up being a free-for-all with multiple operators flooding the market. The result was multiple crashes, scooters being parked willy-nilly, or even chucked into the Seine.
Tough regulations belatedly followed, as has recently happened in Copenhagen, where e-scooters have just returned after being temporarily banned. As with Paris, the number of operators was significantly reduced with other restrictions including allowing riders to travel through the city centre but not to begin or end a journey there.
Dr Caulfield says Dublin is a medieval city, which means there are issues with space. “This is even more so now given the rise in people dining outside due to the Covid crisis. It is already difficult for people with disabilities to get around and we should take a look at what has been done in Copenhagen so that we can keep the city clear and uncluttered.”
He would like to see e-scooters being allowed to roam relatively freely on the outskirts of Dublin and in other towns and cities but for there to be limitations in the capital’s city centre.
June Tinsley, head of advocacy at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) is also worried about the introduction of e-scooters here.
“We want to make sure that people who are blind or vision impaired don’t come to feel more vulnerable than they already are,” she says.
“In fairness, a number of service providers have been in contact with us and are taking on board our concerns but we would be particularly worried that it isn’t clear at this moment who exactly will be making the calls on rules surrounding speed limits, parking options and so on. We don’t know if that will all be decided in the legislation or whether in some instances it will be local authorities.”
Among the measures the NCBI would like to see are colour-contrasted scooters and parking bays, a ban on using vehicles on paths, and speed limits of 15km or less.
Operators and cities alike have learned a lot of lessons and you now see a stronger emphasis from all sides regarding safety and related issues when allowing shared schemes to operate
The general public also has concerns. A survey published by AA Ireland this week found that 65 per cent of respondents do not think e-scooters are used safely. Most respondents also said they wanted riders to have insurance and a licence before they are permitted on roads. There was also support for strict speed limits and for riders to have helmets and lights.
One thing that almost everyone agrees on is that, in being one of the last European countries to enact legislation for e-scooters, the State gets to learn from the mistakes of other nations.
“Operators and cities alike have learned a lot of lessons and you now see a stronger emphasis from all sides regarding safety and related issues when allowing shared schemes to operate. It is in everyone’s interest that this is gotten right straight away,” says Rock.
As well as learning from the mistakes of others, we will also benefit from the fact that e-scooters being manufactured now are, for the most part, designed more sustainably than earlier models and come with better technology that allows operators to enforce restrictions.
Luna, an Irish micromobility tech start-up, is working with a number of service providers to use computer vision that not only helps ensure better safety but can capture more accurate and up-to-date mapping and geospatial data to help manage deployment and operation of schemes generally.
This should help ensure that, while certainly not a panacea, e-scooters can play a part in ensuring we can develop a better transport plan for our cities and towns.
Dr Caulfield is wary of claims that micromobility devices are environmentally friendly and he also notes that research shows that rather than encouraging people to leave cars at home, it is cyclists and pedestrians who end up using e-scooters, thereby negating the health benefits. Nonetheless, he does think they could be used as part of a more joined-up network that involves private and public transport operators, such as Free Now and Dublin Bus, working together with other service providers to present multiple options for end users who want to get around easily.
Alan Murphy, regional manager for Smart Dublin, says the data that can be provided by e-scooter service providers could play an essential role in helping to transform transport options in the capital.
Smart Dublin, an initiative of the four local authorities aimed at transforming public services for the better, has teamed up with some providers already to see how such data can be used and Mr Murphy says it is hoped it will be analysed to help optimise the city’s transport network.
“The information can be used to provide essential information that can feed into planning of mass transport, particularly at the first and last mile, which is where public transport often doesn’t reach. It can also allow for hyperlocal regulations to be enforced.”
“By themselves, e-scooters and other micromobility services won’t get people out of cars but when drawn into a bigger plan that involves other providers, they could,” Mr Murphy adds.
More than 20 e-scooter providers have expressed an interest in providing shared services in the Republic. These include international heavy hitters such as Voi, Bolt, Tier, Dott and Lime, as well as local players including Zipp, Zeus, Moby and Bleeper.
“There’s acute interest from providers primarily because most other European countries have already allowed e-scooters and so Ireland is the last frontier,” says Rock, who now works as a consultant with clients that include e-scooter providers.
“This isn’t a bad thing, though, as it means that with so many companies fighting to launch services here, local authorities will get favourable terms and will have the widest choice of providers to pick from – which can only be a good thing.”