Scooter wars – taking it to the streets

Disruptive industries can be so blinded by their own technical brilliance, that contact with the real world is frustrating.  The sense of arrogant entitlement sported in recent years by Facebook, Uber and Amazon among others, has often made powerful enemies of those whose lives are disrupted by new products and services.  This week, Uber continued its ride from pariah to enlightenment, with a five star programme around sexual violence.  But one sector which may yet avoid the accidents which arise from moving fast and breaking things, is electric scooters.

The number of electric scooters has exploded in the US, driven by start-ups such as Bird, Lime and Spin who have developed dockless scooters that can be left anywhere to be unlocked via an app.  Hailed as the low-impact solution to pollution and traffic congestion, Bird – which is run by former Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden, initially dumped thousands of scooters onto the streets of cities across America, causing chaos.

Response? Spin, a rival to Bird, eschewed these ‘rogue launches’ in favour of working with local authorities. David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer, also recognised this summer that: “There are a lot of complaints about too many vehicles and we’re listening to that…What is going on here is a good slap in the face and it’s waking us up.”

This same debate is now happening in the UK, where scooters remain illegal on roads and pavements, a fact underlined this week by the prosecution of a 15 year old boy in Teeside, who received six points on his future driving licence for riding a scooter in a public place.  Yet thousands of electric scooters continue to be sold in Britain, and indeed Aldi has them in their top ten most coveted gifts this Christmas.

The UK regulatory treatment of scooters relies on an archaic 19th century law, laid down when horses were still common on London streets, and two of the biggest US rental companies, Lime and Bird, are agitating for change.  Having approached Transport for London (TfL) about setting up a sharing scheme in the capital however, TfL said over the summer that it was: “Not in a position to contemplate something that is not legal”, and the Department of Transport (DoT) said that it had no plans to change the law, setting up an intriguing stand-off.

Impact? That government might simply thumb its nose at a new mode of transport which could both ease congestion and improve air quality, looks unimaginative at best.  At worst, it’s setting its face against the inevitable march of good policy.  Lyft, which has unveiled plans to offer scooter and bicycle rides within its ride-hailing app, has said that such ‘multi-modal’ rides would be a key part of a new transport system, that would lead to ‘decoupling people’s right to mobility from car ownership’.

So far the scooter operators appear to be learning from Uber, whose global charm offensive has seen them create a global head of women’s safety and provide advice to drivers on how to spot human trafficking.

If the Scooter operators stay focused on education and addressing the structural challenges faced in reinventing the cities of the future, they may move fast and still avoid breaking things.

Nigel Fairbrass

Nigel Fairbrass