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Adam Smith Inst - E-Scooters are a wheely good policy

A new paper from the neoliberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute comes hot on the tail of the UK Government’s announcement to consult on legalising e-scooters and argues that a liberal approach would provide low-cost, environmentally friendly last-mile transport for Britain’s towns and cities. 

  • One-third of e-scooter rides replace car rides, the ASI has calculated, helping reduce CO2 emissions, NOx pollutants and busting congestion;

  • The UK Government must amend the outdated Highways Act 1835 and the Road Traffic Act 1988 to legalise e-scooters; 

  • In just over two years e-scooters have become available in over 350 cities worldwide and are available in over twenty European countries;

  • Two-thirds of car trips in cities are under three miles and replaceable by e-scooter;

  • E-scooters are safe, presenting a comparable risk to bicycles. They will become safer over time due to increased familiarity of passengers and other road users;

  • E-scooters address economic immobility by serving areas lacking in traditional transport options;

  • The Government should take a devolved approach to legalisation, empowering cities to decide the specifics within a broadly liberal framework.

The UK Government’s move to consider legalising e-scooters brings into sharp focus the need to ensure that regulation is well thought-through and evidence based. 

Instead of succumbing to moral panics on safety that have plagued launches of every new travel technology from the bicycle to cars, the Government should look at how e-scooter legalisation will help meet environmental targets, reduce costs of congestion to the economy, and give more people choice over how they get around our major cities.

New research by the Adam Smith Institute has shown that, where legal already, one third of all e-scooter journeys have replaced car rides — reducing CO2 and congestion in major cities. If legalised they could help the UK meet the country’s climate change and air pollution targets. 

Cars are the most popular transport method in the United Kingdom, with over two-thirds (70%) of trips to work undertaken by car. A majority (58%) of car journeys in the UK are for a short distance, with 7% of car journeys below one mile, 18% between one and two miles, and 33% between two and five miles. The free market think tank argues that there are therefore millions of journeys that green modes of short transport that could be made by e-scooters or bikes that are currently made by car.

While rentable bikes have been slow to take off, e-scooters have been a hit with passengers. In the United States it took seven years to go from the launch of docked bikes to having over 30 million rides per annum, e-scooters surpassed that in their first full year of launching with over 38.5 million rides in 2018. 

The think tank argues that we must avoid the moral panics over scooter safety, noting that every transport innovation, from bikes to cars and even trains suffered from hysteria over their introduction before widespread acceptance. The report also notes that the injury rates for e-scooter use so far are comparable to bicycles and that legalisation could increase safety with clear rules. 

There is also a well observed safety in number effect: where higher numbers of road users have been shown to bring down the number of accidents. Doubling the number of people walking or bicycling increases the number of people struck by just one third — with cars the number of crashes grows in equal proportion to the number of extra journeys. The same logic should apply to e-scooters where, as they become a regular sight for motorists, we should expect to see an increase in the responsiveness of other road users and substantially reduce the likelihood of crashes.

The Adam Smith Institute warns that the UK is falling behind in the development of this new technology, with producers in other countries having a significant first-mover advantage due to the UK’s Government's slow take-up of the technology. 

The report sets out six clear and simple rules for e-scooter use under legalisation: 

  1. Only ride on bicycle paths and on the left-hand side of the road;

  2. Riders must be 16 or over;

  3. One rider at a time;

  4. Do not ride on the sidewalks unless specified;

  5. A speed limit of 15-20mph; and

  6. Do not ride while intoxicated or affected by drugs;

In addition, the think tank says the parking rules should minimise disruption, suggesting four rules with consequences for licence retention should they not be met by companies providing scooters:

  1. Do not block sidewalks, allow at least two metres of free passage. 

  2. Park only near the curb or adjacent to a building. 

  3. Do not block bus stops, entrances to houses and buildings, on public gardens or parks, in the middle of bicycle paths, or on car parking areas. 

  4. Do not block access for people with disabilities.

Matthew Lesh, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute and author of the paper, says: 

“E-scooters are reducing emissions and busting congestion in more than 350 cities worldwide. The multi-billion pound e-scooter industry has safely provided hundreds of millions of rides - including for communities and routes underserved by traditional public transport. 

“In the United Kingdom, outdated laws from as far as 1835 are preventing e-scooters from being used on public roads, bike paths and pavements. The UK should immediately legalise e-scooters and begin sharing scheme trials, with the locally appropriate regulatory regime."

Mayoral Candidate Shaun Bailey said:

“London urgently needs a solution to the clean air crisis and e-scooters should be part of that solution. As the ASI report outlines, e-scooters get people out of cars; ease congestion and reduce carbon emissions which all help to improve our air quality. “As Mayor, I will show the leadership London has lacked for four years, by embracing innovative technology, such as e-scooters, if it can help make our city a cleaner, prosperous and safer city.”

Notes to editors:  

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Matt Kilcoyne, | 07904 099599.

The Adam Smith Institute is a free market, neoliberal think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world

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