Are the new shared e-scooters in Cambridge functional, safe and sustainable? Beth Barker finds out more.
The term micromobility was first coined in 2017 to describe personal transportation vehicles weighing less than 500kg which are usually but not always electrically powered. As it is a fast-growing transport sector, it is not possible to list all the devices which fall within the category, but it includes electric scooters, electric skateboards and electric rollerskates. Some definitions even include electric cycles. Typically, micromobility devices are used for short journeys and can be used in conjunction with other forms of transport to take the first or last part of a longer journey. The COVID-19 pandemic and the need for climate action have created a window of opportunity for micromobility devices to provide socially distant and low carbon transport options for our urban spaces.
Together the Road Traffic Act 1988 and Highways Act 1835 render privately owned e-scooters illegal to use on public roads, pavements, cycle lanes and pedestrian-only areas. However, fast-tracked legislation passed in July now allows rental e-scooters to be legally used on British roads.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA), along with many other local authorities, decided to join the Department for Transport’s micromobility trial. On 6 August 2020 CPCA announced a 12-month trial of electric scooters and electrically-assisted pedal cycles (EAPC) to test the safety, suitability and popularity of the scheme as a way to reduce air pollution and congestion, as well as forming part of the regional strategy to provide safe transport during the pandemic.
Although Camcycle is broadly supportive of micromobility devices to reduce car use, the prospect of the e-scooter scheme and the possible legalisation of privately-owned micromobility devices on public roads raised some immediate concerns. Roxanne De Beaux, Camcycle’s Executive Director, said: ‘While we welcome initiatives that provide a sustainable and accessible transport option that gets people out of their cars, it must not compromise the safety and use of active transport, such as walking and cycling.’
In response to the proposed scheme and the growth in micromobility devices, Camcycle has put together a draft policy ‘Micromobility and Cycling’ as part of our wider Policy Project. A summary of the key points is shown below.
Camcycle’s policy on micromobility and cycling
Camcycle takes the position that micromobility devices such as electric scooters which can meet regulatory, technical and safety requirements as defined by a suitable Type Approval process, should be permitted where appropriate and unlikely to compromise the safety of other road users, in order to replace short car journeys. New rules developed for micromobility devices must not have a detrimental effect on the usage and accessibility of cycles. We have four policies.
First, the rules and locations for the use of micromobility vehicles should be determined by their functionality and performance. All newly legal micromobility devices should go through a Type Approval process to confirm that they are fit for use and to determine the appropriate classification for legal purposes. This is vital to enable enforceability. Devices that cannot exceed 15.5mph should be treated like Twist and Go electrically-assisted pedal cycles, with the attendant Type Approval requirement suitably specified to ensure fitness for purpose, including stability and braking. Electric bikes and micromobility devices that do not meet the Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle (EAPC) rules or can exceed 15.5mph must continue to be Type Approved and covered by the full moped or motorbike legislation, as appropriate.
Second, micromobility devices and mobility scooters with a maximum speed between 4mph and 15.5mph should be permitted to use the carriageway and cycle infrastructure, subject to Type Approval assessment of fitness for purpose. Therefore, powered micromobility devices should be forbidden from footways, unless they are being used as mobility aids and speed-limited to 4mph in a similar manner to mobility scooters. If limited to 4mph, powered micromobility devices should qualify as footway-compatible mobility aids for people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act. Type Approved micromobility devices should be able to use all lower-speed roads, as these are public spaces open to all activities, including walking, cycling and horse-riding. Devices permitted on cycle lanes and tracks should be speed-limited to have comparable speed and braking characteristics to pedal cycles and EAPCs, as well as front and rear lights.
Third, infrastructure should be built with consideration of the different vehicle types and sizes permitted to use it. Cycle infrastructure should be built to a high standard, ensuring comfort, safety and accessibility for all ages and abilities on a wide range of cycles in addition to approved micromobility devices and mobility scooters.
Fourth, the introduction of micromobility devices should not have a detrimental effect on the usage and accessibility of cycles. Use of micromobility devices in public spaces should be effectively controlled to ensure safe conditions for all road users. Micromobility sharing or hire schemes should be monitored to ensure they are delivering a significant modal shift from motor vehicles and that devices are not causing obstructions to other road and pavement users when not in use. Pricing schemes should not encourage risk-taking (e.g. should be based on distance rather than time). Docking stations (where used) must not be permitted to replace existing cycle parking. To maximise access to cycling for all ages and abilities, user requirements for cycles should remain unchanged by any incidental consequences of rules for micromobility vehicles (e.g. if helmets may be mandatory for some trials that must not have any influence on helmet policy for cycles). Low-impact options for rebalancing and recharging micromobility vehicles are preferred, to reduce levels of motor traffic and carbon emissions from daily fleet servicing.
With this policy in mind let’s take a look at the current e-scooter scheme in Cambridge.
Hiring a scooter
The Swedish micromobility company Voi Technology was appointed by CPCA to run the trial. Voi said it would be bringing hundreds of its e-scooters to Cambridge and has the potential to bring 2,000 to the region. However, initially just 50 e-scooters were deployed in Cambridge on 15 October. The scooters have been fitted with ‘self-cleaning’ copper handlebar tape to limit the spread of the coronavirus and are disinfected every 24 hours. Before the scheme started the CPCA undertook a survey and found that 65% of respondents were excited or welcoming of the idea of e-scooters coming to Cambridge.
So that I could understand and assess the scheme properly, I, of course, had to take a Voi e-scooter for a spin, talk to stakeholders and do my research. It is important to note that these are my opinions based on my experience and do not necessarily represent Camcycle’s views. Also, the e-scooter trial is evolving quickly and some of the details written here may have changed by the time you read this.
For those who have a smartphone and are comfortable with downloading and using apps, the Voi app is very user friendly. On downloading you are immediately taken through a series of instructions: how to ride, where to park and the Voi rules. These instructions are clear, although plain instructions do not necessarily lead to perfect practice. Since launching across the UK, Voi has introduced app notifications which remind users of the rules in response to complaints over behaviour. Those found breaching the rules, for example parking in the wrong place repeatedly, can be permanently blocked from using the e-scooters. Some rules are less directly enforceable through the app, such as not riding on the pavements. However, each e-scooter has a number plate which can be reported to Voi and the user at the time can be reprimanded through the app. Patrolling Voi ambassadors are working with Cambridge Police to monitor e-scooter use.
You use the in-app map to locate your nearest parking zone where you can collect your e-scooter. I was closest to the Fen Causeway parking zone, near to the junction with Trumpington Road. I was surprised that this location had been chosen, as it is a narrow pavement, busy road and complex junction, not an ideal place to start your e-scooter journey. Unlocking the scooter was straightforward, although you must have your provisional or full UK driving licence on you to upload a photo via the app and be able to link a payment card. So now I was ready to ride.
Start, Slow and No-Go
As I lifted my e-scooter onto the road, another user unlocked their scooter and immediately rode off on the pavement, which is illegal. However, I could understand why one might not want to try riding the e-scooter for the first time on such a busy bit of road. This is a good example of poor infrastructure and planning pushing micromobility users into poor/illegal practice and why Camcycle emphasises in its policy the importance of good infrastructure.
I found stopping and starting the scooter straight forward. The Voi e-scooter is sturdy and well equipped with a bell, phone holder, front and rear lights, brakes and the throttle on the right-hand side. Riding along Trumpington Street was pleasant, although the e-scooter’s small wheels coped poorly where the road surface was uneven: another reason to improve infrastructure. One of the clever aspects of the Voi initiative is the geofenced zones which control the e-scooter. Cambridge is divided into Operational, Slow and No-Go zones. CPCA chose to opt for max 10mph (most other UK schemes went for 12.4mph (20km/h) and CPCA have subsequently upped the speed limit to 12.4mph too) in the operational zones. As soon as a rider enters a Slow Zone the speed is automatically reduced to 5mph. When a rider enters a No-Go Zone (including any area outside the trial and private land) the e-scooter motor is disabled. Safety is paramount for CPCA which explains their decision to opt for lower speeds in contrast to other UK cities’ e-scooter trials. Although I agree with the choice to prioritise pedestrian safety, as 5mph is only just above walking speed it would be cheaper and probably easier for many (of course not all) potential users just to walk through a city centre which is full of geofenced Slow Zones.
It was only when I tried to make a right-hand turn that I found a challenge to riding the e-scooters. There were no app instructions about making manoeuvres and the e-scooter is not fitted with indicators. As a cyclist my instinct was to indicate with my arm; however, you cannot keep the scooter moving forward with your right hand and indicate right at the same time. Although I am sure with practice one gets better at manoeuvres, I found it awkward, particularly as propelling the scooter unassisted by the motor is hard as it is very heavy. This difficulty in signalling will likely cause some safety concerns for other road users, particularly cyclists who will be sharing space with the scooters. There are plans to launch RideLikeVoila, an online traffic school, which e-scooter users will be encouraged to take before they ride. This would definitely help first-time riders like me.
Before you start your ride, the app suggests that you locate where you are going to park the scooter, because in Cambridge you must park in designated parking spots: you cannot leave the scooter outside these zones without repercussions, including fines of £25 and permanent blocking for repeated offences. There are blue parking zones which are ‘good places to park’ and green zones which are so good ‘you’ll get a discount if you park there’. This strict parking approach is an attempt to stop e-scooters blocking other road and pavement users. Although there are 38 mandatory parking zones, this does not mean there will always be one that is close to your start/end point, which reduces the convenience of the scheme.
These mandatory parking rules should hugely reduce the disruption caused by past shared-usage cycle schemes, but will it be at the expense of uptake? One important point here is that although shared-micromobility vehicles can cause an obstruction, this would be less of a problem if our urban spaces provided more room for pedestrians, cyclists and micromobility devices and less for cars. Of course, even strict rules don’t stop the e-scooters being left in the wrong place or being parked badly in the designated zones. In mid-November approximately 25% of the scooters where being incorrectly parked. This may be a product of unclear parking zone boundaries, user misunderstandings and too few parking zones, as well as poor user behaviour. This parking issue goes against Camcycle’s policy that micromobility devices must not compromise the safety and accessibility of other transport options. Voi ambassadors are being responsive, collecting any rogue e-scooters and rebalancing the fleet regularly.
Free rides for key workers
It costs £1 to unlock a ride, then 20p a minute. My ride of 14m26s cost £4, which is quite expensive given I only travelled approximately 1.5 miles, although not surprising as I was mostly going through Slow Zones, travelling at 5mph. There are subscriptions of £10 a day or £40 a month and subsidised passes of £10 per month offered to low-income groups. There are also exciting plans to support key workers with free rides. However, most people I have spoken to have commented that the scooters seem quite expensive, although not as expensive as using a car!
E-scooters: the verdict
Let’s go back to the beginning and remember why the e-scooters were launched: to reduce pollution and congestion. One common concern is the emissions released by the motor vehicle journeys required to redistribute the e-scooters. Voi has avoided this by using electric vans to rebalance their fleet and e-cargo bikes to swap e-scooter batteries. Furthermore, according to the CPCA, based on a forecasted 12–16% car replacement rate and standard utilisation rates, it is expected the e-scooter trial will save 48–115 tonnes CO2 equivalent in Cambridge over the next 12 months. This is hard to investigate without seeing the CPCA’s workings, but I am sceptical that the car replacement will be this high.
In its current form, the scheme only covers central Cambridge and the biomedical campus, missing out much of the residential area, and only some of Cambridge’s transport hubs are included (Trumpington P&R, central railway and bus stations and the Addenbrooke’s bus interchange). Furthermore, many of the people who live in the central area covered by the trial are students, who tend not to drive. Given that e-scooters are supposed to be collected from parking zones, you would be lucky to live near one and most people will have to walk some way before finding an e-scooter; however, Voi has said they aspire to have a parking zone every 150m eventually. This current set-up means that the scheme is not matched very well with people’s journeys. There are other inhibiting factors including the restricted operating hours (Standard: 6am-8pm, Exception: 24/7 during the November lockdown), the Slow Zone speed and the inability to carry cargo on the device. It seems unlikely that in its present form the scheme will replace large numbers of car journeys; I think it is more likely to supersede active travel like walking and cycling, or be part of a public transport-based journey.
The CPCA reported in their Cambridge e-scooter launch press release: ‘Since e-scooters launched in Northampton, there have been more than 57,000 rides in the town…In Birmingham, Voi users have travelled a total of more than 46,000 km’. This makes them sound very successful, but tells us nothing about whether car journeys were being replaced. When I asked the CPCA, at a stakeholders meeting, how they were planning to measure what transport options the scooters were replacing, they admitted their methodology was still in the development stage. Understanding how the e-scooters are fitting into the transport system and people’s lives is vital for evaluating the success of the trial and making decisions on expanding.
There is no doubt that CPCA’s small-scale and safety-first approach in Cambridge is helping the scheme to avoid some of the safety controversies experienced elsewhere. For example, in Coventry, the e-scooter trial was halted just five days after the launch due to safety concerns in pedestrian areas. Voi have also reported that they are pleased with user behaviour in Cambridge as not a single e-scooter has been lost due to vandalism so far. While this article has questioned the extent to which the e-scooter scheme in its present form will replace car use, the trial has only just started. The scheme is constantly evolving and is highly flexible. For example, the recent switch in operating hours and operational area to include the biomedical campus could assist key workers’ mobility during the national lockdown. I do believe that CPCA and Voi are working hard to increase the functionality of the scheme for users while maintaining the highest possible safety standards. The CPCA has said the city’s initial small-scale trial will be monitored for the first three months, after which Voi will make recommendations on the next steps and any infrastructure requirements. User feedback, journey data and stakeholder views, including the views of disability groups and Camcycle, will be considered when evaluating the trial. It is likely that, if safety and user-behaviour concerns are not too great, the scheme will be scaled up in terms of e-scooter numbers and the size of the operational area.
Another important part of this story is that the e-scooters will soon be joined by e-bikes (probably by the end of November 2020). Cambridge is the first location worldwide for Voi e-bikes. The e-bike (electrically-assisted pedal cycle) locations have not been confirmed yet but railway stations, Park & Ride sites and stops along the Busway are likely. Camcycle is regularly contributing feedback via the stakeholder group for the trial and we are hopeful that a thoughtful e-bike scheme will help more people enjoy cycling, including those who are older, less physically able, travelling longer distances or carrying heavy loads. It is possible the e-bike initiative may fill in some of the gaps in the e-scooter scheme and together these shared-use micromobility schemes will facilitate a transformative reduction in car use. However, it will depend on ensuring the two operational models are integrated; working together while fulfilling different niches.
The London Cycling Campaign (2020), using worldwide e-scooter data, found that the largest modal shift to e-scooters was from walking (37%). However, they did also find that 36% of e-scooter journeys replaced the use of a private vehicle. Shifts from cycling and public transport made up respectively, 9% and 13%. This information suggests that e-scooters can reduce car use, although this is at the expense of a drop in active travel. With this data in mind, I am cautiously optimistic that if CPCA and Voi make some modifications, better connect the e-scooters’ operational model to users’ journeys and integrate the e-scooters and e-bikes, there is potential for these micromobility schemes to form an important part of Cambridge’s sustainable transport system.