Less than a year into e-scooter trials, ministers are coming under pressure to ban the new transport technology, with concerned critics claiming they need to be made safe and the public educated on the law. Matthew Scott, Kent’s police and crime commissioner (PCC), has written to the Transport Secretary calling for a clampdown on electric scooter usage. Given the government’s fondness for the precautionary principle, it wouldn’t come as a huge shock if it capitulated to the quibbles of a tiny minority, however weak their opposition may be.
There’s actually little to dislike about e-scooters. For a start, they’re no more dangerous than many other forms of transport. We don’t ban cars or bicycles — we try to provide a safe environment where they can be used. Many of the PCC’s objections relate to rogue scooter riders, but there is a behavioural economics case to be made here: allow widespread use and good will drive out bad. The legalisation of e-scooters could provide safety in numbers. Higher numbers of road user types are associated with proportionally fewer accidents. The alternative is that we criminalise use. But history tells us that prohibiting rather than regulating an activity only increases risk to users.
E-scooters are among the fastest-growing technologies of all time. The first fleet, developed my the company Bird, was launched in California in autumn 2017 — and now e-scooters are expected to surpass half a billion rides globally by the end of this year, far outpacing early growth in the taxi app industry ignited by Uber in 2009. This meteoric rise contrasts starkly with the UK’s pedestrian adoption. We’re lagging far behind other nations — by the time the government published its pre-trial consultation, in which it heard from 2,000 individuals and 176 organisations (including several police forces), e-scooters were ubiquitous in many European cities.