Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Out-Law Analysis 5 min. read

Obstacles remain for e-scooters’ role in the future of sustainable travel


E-scooters, which are loved by some but derided by many, could form part of a new package of transport solutions to reduce emissions, improve air quality and tackle urban congestion.

Technology continues to drive drastic change in the transport sector, with greater electrification, connectivity, automation and real-time data collection and analysis paving the way for further innovation in the next decade. Some of these changes are already here, including transport apps, electric vehicles, drones and early vehicle automation – but there is still the potential to go further in this area.

E-scooters could contribute to the transition away from traditional, carbonised methods of transport, at a time when urgent global action is needed. But public perception and regulatory hurdles remain a blocker to their widespread roll out.

Legal status of e-scooters

Although it is legal to buy or sell an e-scooter, riding them on public roads, pavements or cycle lanes is generally considered to be against the law. However, riding e-scooters on private land is legal with the landowner’s permission.

E-scooters are covered by the same laws and regulations that apply to all motor vehicles. As such, e-scooters need to meet the various requirements of the 1998 Road Traffic Act – including insurance; technical standards; payment of vehicle tax; licensing and registration and the use of relevant safety equipment – to use public roads lawfully. E-scooters do not currently meet these requirements.

E-scooters could contribute to the transition away from traditional, carbonised methods of transport, at a time when urgent global action is needed. But public perception and regulatory hurdles remain a blocker to their widespread roll out.

Section 34 of the Road Traffic Act, together with Section 72 of the 1835 Highways Act, prohibit the use of e-scooters from pavements, cycle paths and public footpaths. Taken together, this means that riders could face a £300 fine and six points on their licence if they use them on public roads or pavements. The only exception to this is when e-scooters are rented as part of an official trial.

E-scooter trials

During the pandemic it became clear that there was a need for a transport option that was both environmentally friendly and capable of allowing its user to observe social distancing rules that were in force at the time. In July 2020, more than 30 local authorities across the UK were permitted to take part in e-scooter rental trials. The trials were originally intended to run for 12 months from the point they commenced in each area but have since been extended in some areas, including Birmingham and Essex, until May 2024.

Regulations introduced in 2020, which provided the legislative basis for the trials, define an e-scooters as a vehicle that:

  • is fitted with an electric motor with a maximum continuous power rating not exceeding 500 watts;
  • is not fitted with pedals that are capable of propelling the vehicle;
  • has two wheels, one front and one rear, aligned along the direction of travel;
  • is designed to carry no more than one person;
  • has a maximum weight, excluding the driver, not exceeding 55kg;
  • has a maximum design speed not exceeding 15.5 miles per hour;
  • has a means of directional control through the use of handlebars which are mechanically linked to the steered wheel;
  • has a means of controlling the speed through hand controls; and
  • has a power control that defaults to the ‘off’ position

The regulations also amend road traffic rules to exempt e-scooters being used in a trial from certain requirements of the Road Traffic Act. However, two requirements set out in primary legislation continue to apply during the trials: e-scooters must be covered by a motor vehicle insurance policy, which rental operators have been responsible for putting in place; and each e-scooter user must have a valid driving licence.

To permit the use of e-scooters in the trial areas, local authorities have exercised their powers under the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act to implement Experimental Traffic Regulation Orders (ETROs). The effect of an ETRO is, for example, to allow e-scooters being used as part of an approved rental scheme to be used on roads and cycle lanes and to amend pedestrian and bus only zones to allow e-scooters to be used in a similar way to pedal cycles.

A bespoke regulatory framework

An independent evaluation (121 pages / 143MB PDF) of e-scooter trials, carried out on behalf of the Department for Transport and published in December 2022, concluded that rental e-scooters can serve as a valuable mode of transport. In total, 14.5 million rental e-scooter trips were completed during the trials by December 2021. The evaluation highlights an increased use of rental e-scooters for purposeful journeys, such as commuting, and noted a progressive increase in mode shift away from private vehicles as trials matured.

The report also revealed that rental e-scooters are providing access to new travel options for some groups, with people from ethnic minority groups and those with low incomes more likely to use e-scooters regularly. The evaluation also noted that the majority of residents in trial areas saw the introduction of e-scooters in their area as positive. While the findings of the report are largely positive, the absence of a formal legislative framework regulating the construction, use and operation of both privately owned and approved hire e-scooters continues to prevent their potential as a sustainable, alternative method of transport from being unlocked.

As it stands, sophisticated technologies and management systems are applied to existing approved hire e-scooters, such as user registration, geo-fencing and misuse policies, to regulate their safe use. But a 2021 Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety report (26 pages / 2.15MB PDF) noted that it would not be possible to utilise those same technologies and systems for the use of private e-scooters. Because of this, the council proposed a regulatory framework to address the elements for e-scooter design and construction, as well as the areas they could be permitted in and requirements for users.

Design and construction

According to the council’s recommendation, rules governing the design and construction of e-scooters could stipulate requirements such as a maximum speed and weight; mandatory front and rear lighting; minimum wheel dimension and tamper-proof measures to prevent modification.

Permitted areas of use

The council concluded that e-scooters could be prohibited from use on the pavement, as trial rental e-scooters currently are, and sections of the road could be repurposed for use by e-scooter users, buses and cyclists.

User behaviour and requirements

Existing road traffic rules could be aligned and applied to the use of e-scooters, the council suggested, in addition to some new requirements specific to e-scooters. These could include:

  • a minimum rider age;
  • ·vehicle registration;
  • ·valid insurance;
  • rider training;
  • a ban on the use of mobile or handheld devices while in operation of an e-scooter; and
  • a ban on the use of an e-scooter when the rider is under the influence of alcohol or drugs

The future of e-scooters

Although e-scooters are not capable of providing the sole answer to the UK’s current mobility problems, there is certainly a role for them to play. They have the potential to take journeys off the road, reduce congestion, assist with first and last mile journeys and could even be integrated seamlessly into the wider public transport network.

Giving e-scooters a formal legislative framework to regulate their safe construction, use and operation would allow them to form part of a package of emission-free transport methods used by individuals and businesses for sustainable travelling around cities. While the government announced the Transport Bill in the Queen’s Speech in May last year, a formal legislative framework has not followed.

The Transport Bill has since been shelved and it remains unclear whether it will be resurrected in a future parliamentary session. This delay in legislative action has the potential to encourage the unlawful use of privately owned e-scooters, pushing the boundaries of the laws that currently apply, and the exploitation of any resulting grey areas concerning e-scooter use and operation in public spaces.

The Transport Bill should be resurrected as soon as possible in order to set the legislative agenda for e-scooters and other innovative forms of mobility within the UK.

Co-written by Craig Turner of Pinsent Masons.

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