Last week it became legal to use an e-scooter on UK public roads – provided it is rented from one of the Government-approved schemes that are to be trialled by local councils over the next 12 months. The announcement has been greeted with enthusiasm. The first UK scheme is expected to be up and running next week, in Middlesbrough, and 50 councils across the country have expressed an interest.
While the announcement represents a significant step forwards, the UK Government remains unwilling to allow a fully-fledged e-scooter market to develop. The UK is one of only three countries in Europe that prohibits e-scooter owners from using their machines on public roads. In the context of a global market that is estimated by MarketWatch to be worth $51.3 billion by 2026, this represents a missed opportunity to give the UK economy a much-needed boost. In any case, the popularity of this form of ‘micro-mobility’ is growing despite the current legal position, with sales increasing by 100% during 2019 and eBay reporting a surge in demand during the lockdown. It surely isn’t sustainable to maintain a prohibition which increasing numbers of people are prepared to flout openly. It would be far better to bring these users within the law and set up a proper system of regulation to ensure product safety and improve user behaviour on the road.
In the meantime, the Government has high hopes for its e-scooter rental trial and expects that “e-scooters will help ease the burden on the transport network… and allow for social distancing”, according to transport minister, Rachael Maclean.
Central London faces by far the biggest challenge. It hosts around a third of London’s jobs in an area that represents around 2% of the city’s total area. In normal times this extraordinary density of employment is a tremendous advantage, as it drives the creativity and innovation that help make workers here 70% more productive than the UK average. However, little more than a quarter of the usual 1.2 million daily peak time commuting trips into the area are feasible if social distancing rules are to be adhered to, as around 90% of them are by public transport.
It is clear, however, that Central London’s knowledge workers are its lifeblood and keeping a large majority of them away until next year would be hugely damaging. While many of them have adapted successfully to home-based working, much of the rest of the central London service economy, including many of its shops, pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues, face a test of survival.
Central London’s highly skilled workers are drawn from across the Greater South East, but there is a large concentration of them living in inner London, many of whom are the young creatives who power the Flat White economy. High priority should be given to encouraging these people to return to something akin to their usual lifestyle, as this is one of the few options open for stimulating the wider central London service economy. The appearance of the likes of Bird, Lime, Spin and Voi could show London’s locally based knowledge workers that the city around them is still alive and kicking and should encourage them to get out and about, spending their lockdown savings.
On the basis of some cautious assumptions, we estimate that if rental schemes were rolled out across inner London, the number of daily each-way commuting trips that could feasibly be made by e-scooter is around 70,000. Of course, many of these will continue to be made on foot or by bike. Still, capturing even a share of this market could prove lucrative. The Mayor of London’s successful bike hire scheme is normally used for around 30,000 trips per day.
Central London needs to come back to life in the coming weeks and months. It will be less crowded and more local in character for a while, but e-scooters would help it to still be dynamic and fun. London’s councils should take this opportunity seriously and seize it immediately.
For more information, please contact:
Ian Birch, Head of Transport Economics, firstname.lastname@example.org