How do e-scooters compare with cycles and where do they fit in within the world of active travel?

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 155.

Voi rental e-scooters in Cambridge (Victoria Howkins, Unsplash)

You would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t noticed the prevalence of electric scooters (e-scooters) on our streets. Government-regulated trial rental schemes opened in July 2020, hurried in during the COVID pandemic. These now operate in around 30 places in England, including Cambridge, giving members of the public access to this new form of electric-powered micro-mobility. Simultaneously, the number of private e-scooters, which are currently illegal to use on public roads and in public spaces, has mushroomed.

E-scooters are proving to be extremely popular, but how do they compare with bicycles, a well-established mode of transport, and how safe are they? Are people using them as an alternative to private cars, therefore reducing the negative impact on our local and global environments caused by larger motor vehicles or do they replace walking and cycling journeys? Are they primarily ridden for fun?

Not ‘just like bikes’

Pedal cycles, including electrically-assisted pedal cycles (EAPCs), and e-scooters are constructed differently and operate in different ways. The Bicycle Association has prepared a summary which compares them well.

E-bikes and e-scooters compared (Figure 6 from the PACTS report ‘The Safety of Private E-scooters in the UK’).

The most obvious differences between bikes and e-scooters are the wheel size and the location of the centre of mass, both of which affect their stability. For example, removing a hand from the handlebars to signal is relatively straightforward when cycling, thanks to a bike’s larger wheels and more centrally located centre of mass.

However, an e-scooter’s smaller wheels and a rider’s higher and more forward position mean they are less stable.1 This means that e-scooter riders must concentrate harder overall, especially when accelerating and slowing down.

Although small wheels and a shorter wheelbase make e-scooters more manoeuvrable than bikes, they also make them less able to handle changes in the road surface.2 Studies show that more casualties occur when losing control and falling from e-scooters, rather than being knocked off by another vehicle.3

Comparing the rates of injury for e-scooters and bikes, including e-bikes, in the UK is currently difficult because we don’t know enough about the extent of use of e-scooters. The publication of data from the government-regulated rental trials will give us more information, and this should happen before the end of the summer. In the meantime, indications are that e-scooter riders are more likely to suffer serious injuries, especially head injuries, than pedal cyclists.4

Change is coming

So what might the future be for e-scooters? The UK has taken time to consider the laws for e-scooters (they have been in use in Europe and the US for up to five years) and it has recently been confirmed that the new Transport Bill will include legislation for a new category of light-electric vehicles, starting with e-scooters.5 The earliest the law might be changed is spring 2023, requiring another extension to the rental trials to maintain service. By mid-2023 it is probable that more, and larger, rental schemes will be permitted to operate and that some private e-scooters will be allowed on public roads. However, safety regulations which are particular to e-scooters will need to be clearly set out and effectively enforced.

There will be lessons to learn from the rental trials, from analysis of collisions in the UK and from academic research. These will all help inform safety requirements for e-scooters specifically and should apply to both private and rental e-scooters. Because e-scooters are not ‘just like bikes’ some rules will be different from those for electrically assisted bikes. For example, mandatory helmet wearing may be included and lighting could be required at all times. The existing requirements for rental e-scooters are expected to be retained. These include capped speed (15.5mph maximum) and controls on where they are used (geo-fencing). Riders will also probably have to be at least 14 years old, never carry a passenger and never ride on pavements.

A transport revolution?

The Transport Select Committee recommended, in their 2020 report, that legalising e-scooters would depend on the rental trials demonstrating that people were using them instead of a private car and that they were using them on roads and not pavements. Publication of the evaluation of the rental trials will enlighten us. However, early indications from Europe are that people are replacing safer and more active journeys, previously taken by public transport or on foot. It also appears, from police records and some early data from rental operators, that pavement riding is a problem.

E-scooters may be a ‘fun’ means of transport and in Cambridge they appear to be popular with tourists. The only physical requirements are the ability to press the button control to accelerate, to balance while riding and to wheel when parking. However, riders also need endurance to tolerate the bumps on the road and this, as early data from the rental trials indicates, people seem to manage for only 2-3km (a distance travelled in 30 minutes on foot).

An e-scooter parking bay in Oxford (Pierre Marshall, Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some operators of rental e-scooters also provide shared bikes. These work alongside more established schemes, such as the Santander bikes in London and traditional cycle rentals. Pedal cycles and e-bikes can be hired from more places, and can be used over a greater area than rental e-scooters. The pedal cycles and e-bikes may require a little more effort to propel, but the rotating of the pedals brings physical exercise into a rider’s journey. They also enable a rider to safely bring along their shopping, children or even pet with them.

A challenge for all rental micro-mobility is the storage required when rental e-scooters, or e-bikes, are left in public spaces. Some authorities require designated on-road places, therefore reducing clutter which pedestrians, especially the visually impaired, struggle to navigate around. It also starts a rider’s journey on the road, rather than a pedestrian area. Using one existing public car parking space enables that space to benefit more people in making their journeys. It also makes the statement that the local authority, and e-scooter operator, are really making an effort to bring a change to how people travel, and is a practice that should be more widely adopted.

Wheeling ahead

With multi-billion investments having been made across the world, e-scooters are here to stay. Recent announcements by the UK government indicate that the rental schemes, and some currently illegal private e-scooters, will be permitted for use more extensively from 2023. E-scooters which are not much more advanced than a child’s toy with a motor attached put riders and other road users at risk of injury, especially when ridden without care. Legislation is expected which will set regulations around the construction and use of e-scooters, thereby limiting speeds, setting wheel sizes and requiring riders to meet various requirements. However, the e-scooter is still only one player in the expanding market of micromobility. The pedal cycle (with or without electrical assistance) which provides a ready means of transport for people of all ages and abilities, is not likely to be superseded any time soon.

Margaret Winchcomb
Senior Research and Policy Officer at PACTS and author of The Safety of Private Scooters in the UK report

References

  1. Paudel, M. An investigation into the design for rideability of small wheel single-track bicycles and e-scooters. Doctoral thesis, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 2019.
  2. Posirisuk P, Baker C, Ghajari M, computational prediction of head-ground impact kinematics in e-scooter falls, Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 167, 2022, 106567, ISSN 0001-4575.
  3. PACTS-The-safety-of-private-e-scooters-in-the-UK-Final-Report.pdf.
  4. Meyer, HL., Kauther, M.D., Polan, C. et al. e-scooter, e-bike and bicycle injuries in the same period – a prospective comparative study of a Level 1 trauma center. Trauma surgeon, 2022.
  5. Hansard: Queen’s Speech, Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2022, Column 31. 62019 6t-bureau de recherche, Uses and Users of free-floating electric scooters in France, 158 p, 2019.