Are e-scooters the future of green transport, or a dangerous timebomb?

It's rush hour in town. You're stuck in traffic, crawling along at 5mph. That's when you're moving at all. Then you spot something strange in the mirror. It looks like an adult riding a child's scooter, but this plaything is the fastest thing on the road at the moment, weaving unimpeded in and out of traffic, and making use of the cycle lane.

Could the e-scooter be the silver bullet to solving the West Midlands transport problems? There are certainly plenty of people who believe these small electric scooters could become a vital component in a greener, more sustainable transport system.

Andy Street, regional mayor for the West Midlands, appears to be one of them.

"E-scooters will help bring more flexibility, choice, and greener travel solutions for the West Midlands, at a time when we are facing a climate emergency and urging people to leave the car at home," he says.

Emission free, at least at the point of use, small enough not to create congestion, and reasonably quick, they require less effort than a traditional bike, and there is no need for a shower and change of clothing when you arrive at your destination. Their small size means they are also easier to carry on buses and trains, creating a truly integrated transport service.

Up to 10,000 e-scooters are to be made available for hire across the West Midlands over the coming months as part of a trial.

At the moment, there are thought to be about 200,000 e-scooters in the UK. Halfords, the biggest retailer of them, says its sales of e-mobility products, including e-scooters and e-bikes, increased by more than 230 per cent since April, probably due the advice to steer clear of public transport. However, while they may be becoming increasingly commonplace, it is still illegal to ride your own e-scooter on a public highway. However, as part of a government-backed trial, Birmingham and Coventry became among the first UK cities allowing people to hire scooters from an authorised supplier. A similar trial has also been launched in Stafford, and plans are in place to introduce e-scooter hire to Wolverhampton, Walsall and Sandwell. Shropshire Council has also submitted a bid for government funding so that it can operate its own scooter-hire scheme.

The Government says it is initially restricting use to authorised hire companies to ensure that the vehicles all meet approved standards. Those wishing to hire e-scooters will need to provide a valid driving licence, although a provisional licence is acceptable, and the devices will be restricted to a maximum speed of 15.5mph, and must not be taken out of designated geographical areas. They are also subject to a 5mph speed limit in pedestrianised areas, and users are asked to use cycle lanes where possible. The standard fee is £1 plus 20p per minute thereafter, or regular users can have unlimited use for £40 a month.

Transport Minister Rachel Maclean adds that schemes such as the one in Staffordshire could offer clean, efficient and more affordable travel for local communities.

“Learning from trials already taking place, Staffordshire’s will see strict safety measures introduced, including licence verification and responsible parking incentives, while also helping us better understand any impacts on public spaces.”

But not everyone is convinced. The Coventry trial was suspended after just five days following reports of riders mounting pavements and dangerously weaving in and out of traffic.

The National Federation for the Blind UK (NFBU) goes further, calling for all of the trials to be halted immediately. The charity has submitted a file to the Government, suggesting widespread abuse of the scooters is putting public safety at risk.

Evidence collected by the federation, including video footage, shows scooters being ridden along pavements at speed, going straight towards pedestrians and being used by two people at once.

The federation's Sarah Gayton says: "I am at a loss to why more rentable e-scooters are being allowed to launch, when there are still serious safety concerns being raised over existing schemes.

"It is clear as day is day and night is night these schemes are simply not fit for purpose."

The charity's report called for rentable e-scooter trials to be halted with immediate effect.

"They are dangerous and creating unsafe environments for blind, partially sighted, deaf-blind, elderly and disabled people, people using mobility aids and parents with young children, and all other pedestrians, in town and city centres.

"The observations of the rider behaviours witnessed in the Coventry, Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Northampton trials is terrifying, with reckless and dangerous riding being continually witnessed, during 12 site visits. The dockless model of rentable e-scooters is creating serious and dangerous obstructions and trip hazards in the urban environment."

Transport minister Mrs Maclean has pledged to carry out a thorough investigation into the matters raised.

There have also been concerns about the safety of e-scooters for riders themselves. Last year television presenter Emily Hartridge became the first person to die in an e-scooter crash on British roads when she collided with a lorry at a roundabout in London. David Davies, of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, believes the risks are greater than on a conventional pedal cycle or e-bike.

“They are significantly more risky, because the rider is standing upright on very small wheels – typically 8in, compared with a 27in bicycle wheel. Usually, the rider isn’t wearing a helmet; they get pitched forward, and they tend to have nasty facial injuries," he says.

Mr Davies is not convinced by the environmental arguments either.

“I think there is a lot of greenwash attached to them, saying they reduce car journeys, often citing cities in the US where there is no alternative to the car," he says. "European cities have public transport facilities, and shops are more local. Fundamentally, the trips on e-scooters come from walking and to a lesser extent cycling and public transport.”

Lucy Yu, director of public policy, at Voi, the company which is operating the West Midlands trial disagrees. She says that 60 per cent of UK car journeys are between one and three miles, which have a a significant impact on road congestion.

"Cars no longer suit the way we live today, and we estimate that 20 per cent of short journeys could be replaced by low-carbon e-scooters with a minimum five-year lifespan," she says. "E-scooters provide a compelling alternative that will outrun the car."

Environmental concerns of another kind have also been raised regarding the abuse of the scooters. This week, it emerged that a number of them had been discovered at the bottom of our region's canals, presumably dumped by customers who could not be bothered to return them to the correct location.

A number of them have been discovered by the Dudley Dippers magnet-fishing group, and the club's Nicola Jones says the company which runs the scheme has been very efficient in removing them once their location was identified.

Mrs Jones says: “What a waste of money. I think it’s disgusting. They couldn’t be bothered to take them back so they just dumped them in the canal. It’s bad for the waterways.”

Sceptics will also point out that it is not the first time the West Midlands has tried an innovative scheme to provide sustainable transport. In July last year, the West Midlands Combined Authority cancelled its ill-fated Nextbike scheme, which was supposed to have provided 5,000 cycles for short-term hire around the region. It actually delivered just 25, all of them in Wolverhampton.

Of course any new scheme will suffer from teething troubles, and the whole point of the trial is to see if and how these can be ironed out. If so, it is probable that the law will be changed to allow the use of privately owned scooters to be used on the roads too. Certainly that is the view of the parliamentary transport select committee, which this month recommended they should be made legal within 18 months.

Time will tell whether the e-scooter really is the future of road transport in urban areas – or whether it will go the same way as the Sinclair C5.

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