There is a crime wave on our streets, being committed by insouciant teens, commuting executives and even pensioners. Gleefully they glide across our inner cities, scarcely breaking a sweat as they overtake cyclists on stiff climbs. They descend with ease, hair whipping in the wind, gravity and electric engine working together to deliver them to their destination at sometimes staggering speeds.
There are hundreds of thousands of these lawbreakers in the country today. They flout the law openly. You will have seen them in cycle lanes, main roads and even on the pavements. Perhaps you’ve almost been knocked over by one yourself. London, Hampshire, the West Midlands and Sussex appear to be particular hotspots. They’re the e-scooter riders of the UK, and they have already come to a street near you.
Despite it being illegal to ride a private e-scooter anywhere in the UK that is not private land, use has soared in recent years, with 1m private e-scooters imported into the UK since 2018, and about 750,000 believed to be in use. “The illegal e-scooters are demonstrating a clear unmet transport need,” says Lorna Stevenson, an e-scooter researcher at the University of Westminster. “There are people using them who won’t know they’re illegal, but others who do, and still see it as worth the risk. The question is, what is the rest of the transport system not providing to these people?”
Most private e-scooters are set to a limit of 30km/h (19mph), although some can go up to 60km/h. Cheaper models will set you back less than £100, although if you want to travel more than a couple of miles, you are looking at more like £300 or £400. They are sold by major retailers including Argos and Currys, with disclaimers against illegal use that are routinely ignored. “Pretty much everyone agrees,” says Lorna Stevenson, “that the current situation is bad. The fact that it’s legal to walk into a shop and buy an e-scooter, but not to ride it on the road, is a mess for all concerned.”
“I feel like there’s nothing wrong with e-scooters if they’re using them safely,” says Al, 35, a marketer and private e-scooter user from south-east London. Al bought his £270 e-scooter in December 2021. He is immunocompromised, and has spent much of the past two years shielding. With his e-scooter, he’s able to travel across the city without fear of maskless commuters. (He says that he’s unable to ride a bike, for medical reasons.) He insists that he’s a responsible user, only using it in cycle lanes, never pavements, and avoiding rush-hour traffic, so as not to clog up the roads. “I hate it when I see people whizzing through buses,” Al says. “It’s like: ‘You’re making all of us look bad.’ I know it’s exciting and fun, but calm down.’”
But Al has already fallen foul of the law: in March this year, British Transport Police confiscated the scooter. “I was right in front of my house,” Al sighs. He had to pay £160 to get it back from an impound lot, and then fix it, because it had been damaged in transit. Al is Black; research from the zero-carbon campaign group Possible in 2021 found that Black Londoners are more than three times more likely to be stopped for e-scooters offences than white Londoners. Despite his brush with the law, Al intends to keep using his e-scooter. “I need it,” he says. “I’m sorry if it’s against the law.”
There are legal ways to experience the e-scooter thrill. Since 2020, rental e-scooter trials have been operational in many parts of the UK, run by companies including Lime, Spin, Dott, Tier and Voi, in partnership with local authorities. These devices are capped at a maximum speed of 15.5mph, and users must have a full or provisional driving licence. Helmet-wearing is strongly advised, although not mandatory. The Department for Transport is monitoring these trials, which have been extended to later this year, and will use the data collected to determine whether e-scooters should be legalised.
I try one of these rental schemes for myself on the streets of Southwark, south London. Downloading the Lime app and scanning my ID is straightforward: the app takes me through a lighthearted quiz (should I wear helmets only on bad hair days, or all the time?) before I’m able to unlock the e-scooter and move it from the stand. It’s cumbersome and fairly heavy to wheel, and it takes me a minute to get the hang of it – you need to kick away and freewheel before you can start the engine. Gathering speed, I look from side to side and then, quietly as I can, I mutter: “Vroom. Vroom vroom.” It’s fun.
‘They are incredibly easy to use’ … Joe Rayment in Bristol. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian
After my brief jaunt, I’m a fan. Were e-scooters available in my area of London (they aren’t currently), I could certainly see myself using one to get around. I’m not alone: canvassing e-scooter users participating in trials around the UK for this article, many are evangelical about their promise. “They’re incredibly easy to use,” says Joe Rayment, a 30-year-old bid writer. “You just push off and hold a button and you’re away.” Rayment lives in Bristol, which is hilly. “I’m not super-fit,” he admits, “so cycling is difficult. But on an e-scooter you can whip up a hill really easily.”
Rayment uses rental e-scooters to replace journeys that he would previously have taken by car. “If I’m going out for an evening,” he says, “to visit a friend on the other side of the city, whereas I might have got a cab both ways before, I’ll get a scooter there and back now.” This is arguably the great promise of e-scooters and other electric micro-mobility devices, such as e-bikes: that they can replace fossil-fuel-powered models of transportation. “This is an exciting mode of transport that has the ability to get people out of cars,” says Hal Stevenson of Lime, “where previously bikes weren’t so attractive.”
The key issue is what forms of transport the e-scooters are replacing. If e-scooters are pulling people out of cars, they’re more sustainable, but if people are using e-scooters for journeys they might have walked, or cycled, they’re a net loss, because manufacturing e-scooters is a resource-intensive endeavour. “We need to move away from fossil fuels,” says John Broderick of the Royal Society of Chemistry. “All types of electric vehicles are more efficient than combustion engines. But it requires a lot of material resources to make the lithium-ion batteries. Plus, there’s no infrastructure in place in the UK to effectively recycle them, meaning that some scooter batteries may go to landfill.”
Lime estimates that, globally, one in four trips taken by its users replaces a car journey. A Swiss research paper, published in December, found that privately owned e-scooters tended to replace car journeys, but rented e-scooters emitted more CO2 than the transport modes they replaced. “They’re not a silver bullet,” admits Hal Stevenson. “But they are a tool to help get people out of cars, and create more sustainable transport solutions.” It all comes down to best usage, says Broderick. “If they’re being bought as toys, and people aren’t getting a lot of mileage out of them, then they’ll have a high profile in terms of their environmental impact,” he says. “But if you’re using them for five or six years and they’re replacing a car, that’s great.”
Sustainability is probably a secondary consideration for many e-scooter users. More than anything, e-scooters are great fun, as I learned for myself on the streets of Southwark. “It’s a good laugh riding them,” says Jonathan Thompson, a 52-year-old healthcare worker from Middlesbrough, who is a regular rental e-scooter user. “When you get on a straight stretch there’s this nice flying feeling.” But for all their acolytes, it is almost as easy to find detractors. In part, this is because reckless users are so visible. “They’re always on the pavement,” says Pritpal Kaur, a 71-year-old airport worker from west London. “They don’t seem to care. They think they own the pavement.” Kaur was almost knocked down by an e-scooter on the pavement – at the last minute, her daughter pulled her out of the way.
‘They think they own the pavement’ … Pritpal Kaur. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
Like Kaur, I’ve also almost been hit by an e-scooter on the pavement. The rider, a teenager, came so close, I felt a rush of air as he swerved around me. But it seems unfair to vilify all e-scooter riders due to the rule-breaking of a few: after all, 56% of car drivers exceed the speed limit in low-speed areas. I suspect this hatred is fuelled by a larger animus among motor vehicle users towards people they perceive to be clogging up the roads. “Some people really don’t like e-scooters, in the same way that some people don’t like cyclists,” says Lorna Stevenson. “They are perceived to be ‘other’, or doing something that is not normal. Why won’t they just get a car? But others have valid reasons for not liking them.”
For people with disabilities, particularly the visually impaired, e-scooters, which are mostly silent, can affect their ability to use public spaces. It is for this reason that Guide Dogs UK has spoken out against legalising e-scooters, while the Royal National Institute of Blind People has called for a range of measures including safe parking, road use only and enforcement against pavement users. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Salford are developing a universal sound for e-scooters. (The Lime e-scooter I used made a low-pitched whirr, but the private e-scooters that zipped past me were noiseless.)
“They come up behind you and you can’t hear them,” says Elaine Maries, who is 54 and lives in Milton Keynes. Maries, who is visually impaired, has been knocked over twice by e-scooters. The first time, in May 2021, happened just as Maries and her guide dog, Inca, stepped outside their house. “Two young people hit me and I fell over on Inca,” Maries says. A passerby told Maries they were e-scooter users, who fled the scene. Maries was bruised, and Inca pulled a muscle in her leg that put her out of action for six weeks, rendering Maries housebound. Two months later, Maries tripped over two e-scooters on a pavement and fractured her foot. “What people don’t realise,” says Maries, “is when something like this happens, that’s my complete independence gone.”
Maries was unlucky. You are much more likely to be injured by a car than an e-scooter. In the year to June 2021, there were 882 accidents involving e-scooters, and three deaths, but all of these deaths were of e-scooter users, rather than pedestrians. The first e-scooter death reported on UK roads was of the YouTuber and TV presenter Emily Hartridge, who died after colliding with a lorry in July 2019. An inquest concluded that Hartridge had lost control of the scooter in part due to an underinflated tyre. In January this year, a 74-year-old male e-scooter rider died, while in March, a 14-year-old girl riding an e-scooter died after a crash involving a van.
These deaths attracted national media attention due to the novelty of e-scooters, but it’s worth putting them into context: about four people die each day on our roads, and these deaths pass largely unnoticed, while newspapers fulminate about the “e-scooter menace” on our streets. “Our feelings of safety are not always rational,” says Lorna Stevenson. “There are people out there with strongly negative feelings about e-scooters, and it’s important we don’t minimise those concerns, especially when those people may already be transport-disadvantaged due to age or disability.”
‘You can’t hear them’ … Elaine Maries with her dog, Inca. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
But there is some evidence to suggest that e-scooters may be more dangerous than comparable forms of transport, such as bicycles. One factor is their speed. “My concern is how easily they can be tampered with,” says Margaret Winchcomb of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which recently published a report into e-scooter safety. “The scooters may be sold with a capped speed, but we’ve heard these designs can be altered to go up to speeds of 60mph.” By contrast, professional cyclists struggle to achieve speeds of more than 30mph, and the average urban cyclist rides well below 20mph.
“It’s basic physics,” says Winchcomb. “The faster you’re going when you hit a solid object, the more energy is released. Fundamentally, our bodies can’t cope with that.” The design of e-scooters may also make them unstable. “Because they have smaller wheels,” says Winchcomb, “they are more susceptible to defects in the road surfaces. They can’t navigate potholes so easily.” A study from University of California researchers in April found that e-scooters had injury rates more akin to motorcycles than bicycles.
I’m not surprised to find this: although my Lime e-scooter was capped at a speed of 12.5mph – which is by no means fast, so that I was easily overtaken by cyclists – when I hit a pothole, I nearly fell off. The e-scooter felt much less stable than any bike I’ve ridden. To mitigate against injury, helmet-wearing is strongly encouraged by the major rental companies: Lime gives users a discount if they upload a selfie of themselves wearing a helmet before a ride. In the Netherlands, traditional e-scooters are illegal; larger, sturdier devices that resemble conventional bicycles, but are used in a standing position, are commonly used.
Despite these concerns, it seems near-inevitable that e-scooters will be legalised in the near future: they are already legal in many European countries. In October 2020, the House of Commons Transport Committee recommended that the Department for Transport should legalise private e-scooters, subject to stricter enforcement against pavement use and pavement clutter, and with speed limits. Most experts, Lorna Stevenson included, would welcome such a move. “We need to have a grownup conversation about the fact that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions from transport,” she says. “If it’s not e-scooters and e-bikes, then what is it?” Al is likewise convinced that his days of being stopped by police for riding his scooter will soon be at an end. “I know it will be legalised,” he insists. “And then we’ll have freedom.”
Some names have been changed.