E-scooter firms get the green light to start trials of up to one year on UK streets

In light of COVID-19 and social distancing regulations, the U.K. has been working on making it easier for people to get from point A to B in cities without resorting to buses and trains or bringing more cars to congested roads, and today that strategy took an interesting leap forward.

The country’s Department for Transport today announced that it would start allowing e-scooters, by way of e-scooter rental companies, to legally operate across the country initially in a trial phase starting no later than August. Councils and other authorities, including across London and other major cities, are working on putting together trials that could run for as long as 12 months under guidelines provided by the government.

The regulations come into force on July 4, the DfT said, with the first trials expected to begin a week later.

“As we emerge from lockdown, we have a unique opportunity in transport to build back in a greener, more sustainable way that could lead to cleaner air and healthier communities across Great Britain,” said Transport Minister Rachel Maclean in a statement. “E-scooters may offer the potential for convenient, clean and cost-effective travel that may also help ease the burden on the transport network, provide another green alternative to get around and allow for social distancing. The trials will allow us to test whether they do these things.”

There are some restrictions in place: E-scooters will not be able to go faster than 15.5 miles per hour, and they will only be able to use roads and cycle lanes, not sidewalks or other areas reserved for pedestrians. Users will need a drivers license (full or provisional). The scooters themselves will not need to be registered as vehicles but will need insurance. As with bicycles, users will be recommended — but not required — to wear helmets.

It seems that privately owned e-scooters will not be included in the rule relaxation, but it’s not clear what steps regulators will take — if any — to avoid the cluttering that we have seen in some cities overrun with too many dockless scooters crowding sidewalks.

The list of e-scooter hopefuls is long. From the word go, those that are looking to operate in the U.K. include Bird, Bolt (the ridesharing startup out of Estonia), Tier, Neuron Mobility, Lime, Voi and Zipp Mobility.

We’re contacting the DfT with our questions and will update this post as we learn more.

Electric scooters will now join the ranks of other shared transportation options that include bikes and e-bikes, as a complement to mass transit and of course walking or using your own nonautomotive wheels as an alternative to using cars. E-scooters have been seen both as an alternative for short distances (between 1 and 5 miles) but also as a last-mile solution in combination with other transport modes aimed at longer distances, like buses and trains.

The news today lifts restrictions that had previously been in place that classified e-scooters as motor vehicles and therefore required the e-scooters to be licensed and taxed, and for operators to have licenses to use them.

Those rules also meant that the e-scooters were illegal to use on sidewalks, with the only exception to all that being legal usage across select (and very limited) campuses on private land.

The moves come on the heels of a consultation in March to pilot e-scooter use in three regions of the U.K., along with a number of other initiatives including e-cargo carriers and using drones to transport medical supplies — the aim being to explore in quick order a number of new technologies to expand transportation options available to consumers, as well as essential businesses and the people who work in them.

The bigger trend has seen other cities also looking to relax rules to improve transportation options to people who wish to socially distance but still need to get around urban areas in ways that are quicker than walking. New York City is also expected to unveil its own roadmap for e-scooter pilots in the near future.

The news made official today had been something of a badly kept secret, specifically among transportation startups whose businesses have been in a holding pattern waiting for the regulator to ease up on restrictions that had been in place.

Just about all of those startups have been sending out alerts to journalists for over a week now with comments on the government’s widely expected announcements.

“We welcome the DfT’s announcement and are excited to be one step closer to the starting of e-scooter trials,” said Zachary Wang, CEO of Neuron Mobility, in a statement. “We are already in discussions with quite a few councils, as no two towns or cities are the same we look forward to partnering with them to safely introduce e-scooters in a way that best suits their individual needs. COVID-19 has led to a fundamental rethink of the way we travel and e-scooters have the potential to radically improve how we get around our towns and cities. We are delighted that people in the U.K. will soon be able to benefit from shared e-scooters. They will allow people to continue social distancing while also providing a more efficient travel option than gas-guzzling alternatives.”

Some have been waiting for a chance to operate for some time.

“We welcome today’s announcement from the government as it looks to get cities moving again safely and in an environmentally friendly way,” said Roger Hassan, COO of TIER Mobility, in a statement. “We already have more than 1,000 of our industry leading scooters in our U.K. warehouse, ready to be deployed and we will be shipping more over very soon. Everyone at TIER is looking forward to working with the government and with local authorities to make e-scooters in the U.K. a huge success story.”

While there had been restrictions in place before now, I should point out that they were often badly enforced: In London there have always been some private e-scooter owners zooming around alongside bikes and cars on the roads, and I’ve even stopped at red lights on my bike, with an e-scooter on one side of me and a police officer on the other, and not a word gets exchanged, just a simple shrug of “What can you do?” So decriminalising, as it has done in other industries, will hopefully mean better oversight, alongside better choice for users.

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