What impact will Grant Shapps’ unexpected announcement have on early e-scooter trials in the UK?

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps presents at the No.10 lectern for the daily Downing Street briefing

In our first post on the UK government’s ‘Future of Transport’ consultation, we discussed its likely impact on electric scooters. In what is being described as the ‘biggest shake-up of transport law’ in a generation, the Government clearly wishes to re-establish the UK as a world leader in transportation technology.

In our discussion, we voiced our concerns that the bureaucratic nature of Government might result in the legislation being delayed. Failing to capitalise on the opportunity would leave the UK struggling to catch up with the rest of the world and achieve its vision of being a pioneer in innovative, greener transport technology.

However, following the unexpected announcements on Saturday 9th May by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, it seems things are speeding up quicker than anyone expected – even the DfT!  While standing at the No.10 lectern, Mr Shapps presented the daily coronavirus briefing with some surprises, the most significant of which was the fast-tracking of electric scooter rental trials.

Does the Minister's announcement change anything?

The Transport Secretary announced that electric scooter trials will be fast-tracked and may occur as soon as next month (June 2020), rather than later this year as previously hinted.

Additionally, the trials will no longer be restricted to the original four Future of Transport zones (see our previous blog post for a recap). Instead, they will be extended across the whole country, with any local council being able to get involved – implying that the legislation will need to be without geographic restrictions. Details are still to be unveiled, but the Minister made clear that the law will be changed using secondary legislation.

What are our thoughts on the latest developments?

Realism of timescales

The announcement appeared to be a gut reaction to the slow lifting of lockdown and longer-term reduction in public transport capacity due to social distancing. However, if electric scooters are to be trialled legally, how will the Government be able to legislate for the start of the trials in June on such short notice?

The current primary legislation consists of a series of laws dating back to the Highways Act of 1835, and it makes electric scooters illegal on UK roads. 

So what exactly will the secondary legislation necessary for the trials to take place look like? Secondary legislation transfers executive power to ministers and government departments – in this case, the DfT – and empowers them to create ‘statutory instruments’. Statutory instruments are short-term ‘emergency legislation’ for crisis management which are not subject to detailed scrutiny by Parliament – meaning MPs can either approve or reject the proposed law, but cannot amend it.

In this case, we expect secondary legislation to effectively remove electric scooters’ classification as ‘motor vehicles’, thus allowing e-scooters to circulate on UK roads on the same legal grounds as bicycles and e-bikes. This approach has the benefit of fast-tracking e-scooter legalisation, in light of the transport emergency created by Covid-19. However, will fast law mean good law? 

And what about the e-scooter rental companies who are financially on their knees and have withdrawn from most major cities worldwide? Will they be able to quickly respond to the Government's change of pace?

A man riding a red bicycle cycles past a fleet of parked rental electric scooters in the city.
Photography by Daniel Von Appen

E-scooter trials and subsequent legislation

We were surprised that London wasn’t included amongst the original designated trial locations, given that electric scooters are so common on its streets. But now the Government appears to have scrapped the idea of limited locations, and we are happy that every local authority can participate if it wishes. Moreover, the announcement puts Transport for London back on the hook with no excuses.

Aside from having to pass the necessary secondary legislation, we question whether June is a realistic timescale. Is there sufficient time to set up the rental schemes? It all seems rather optimistic, since local regulatory authorities will need to define the parameters of any scheme, fairly identify and select rental companies, and negotiate sensible contracts.  

And what about the public consultation that was only recently extended to July to allow more time for the Department for Transport to collect feedback? How will the DfT decide on key safety features such as speed, motor power, baking systems, helmet usage and age restrictions? What legislation will be introduced after the trials? Will it then retrospectively restrict types of vehicles and their use? Rental e-scooters have been at the heart of the discussion – but what about the legalisation for ownership vehicles?

Hopefully we will get some answers in due course. Until then, how the Government conducts the trials and implements legislation remains somewhat unclear.

Police enforcement

The Transport Secretary’s announcement appears to suggest the total legalisation of electric scooters on British roads, but without a clear definition.

For a brief period in the summer of 2019, the Highways Act was enforced by the Metropolitan Police, and saw them fining illegal users and even confiscating their vehicles after the first e-scooter fatality made headlines in the national press. Moving forward, however, the Police will have difficulty in identifying whether an e-scooter rider has a rental or personal vehicle.

And how will the local regulator define rental operating hours, the number of operators and the allowed quantity of e-scooters on the streets? If the Government fails to be clear on this, they risk UK cities ending up in the same chaos that plagued San Francisco and other cities such as Paris, where dockless rentals were dumped on footpaths, posing a hazard to pedestrians and polluting the streetscapes. So it won't be in the local regulators’ interest to rush the licencing of rental operators.

Conclusion

There is no question that the whole of the UK’s population will have to dramatically rethink the way they move around in light of Covid-19. The public are actively being discouraged from using public transport, which, with its constant influx of people and all its touchpoints, is a haven for the virus.

If public transport is replaced by cars, this will create further road gridlock and will jump-start again the air pollution trend that the epidemic had successfully arrested, with its associated adverse effects on public health. After all, poor air quality has been shown to increase the risk of suffering from respiratory diseases, and recent studies have suggested it could also increase the chances of contracting coronavirus.

It is however great that electric scooters are now being considered a vital part of lockdown recovery and a means of getting the public to embrace greener transport. While we think the timetable is incredibly ambitious, we can see momentum clearly building behind electric scooters, and we believe proper legislation will be passed during 2021.



References

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