Dozens of cities and local councils across England, Scotland and Wales have been in talks with domestic and multinational electric scooter companies since the transport department cleared the way for schemes over the summer. Tests are already under way in the Tees Valley in the North East and Milton Keynes.
On Thursday, the West Midlands will announce the largest scheme yet, a plan that could eventually see 10,000 vehicles on the streets of Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, one of the largest scooter deployments in any urban area in the world.
“This is all evolving very quickly. We’ve gone from snail’s pace in the UK to moving incredibly fast,” said Paul Hodgins, chief executive of the UK scooter start-up Ginger.
“There was an incredible boom of interest from UK authorities,” said Philip Ellis, chief executive of Beryl, a bike-sharing operator that will soon launch its first e-scooters in Norwich.
The West Midlands trial will be carried out by Voi, the Swedish scooter start-up. Fredrik Hjelm, Voi’s chief executive, said the contract was “the biggest one we have seen globally”.
Only a few hundred vehicles will launch at first. “In Birmingham you need thousands on the streets to be a real transportation service, but a staggered rollout is the best way,” he said.
But while multinational scooter operators such as Lime, Bird, Tier and Voi, as well as the clutch of new UK-based rivals, are salivating at the prospect of Europe’s largest untapped market finally opening up, some safety campaigners fear a repeat of the chaos and controversy that has followed the vehicles’ appearance in cities around the world over the past two years.
The scooter companies are bracing themselves for a potential backlash. “Launch anything like this, there is an element of the public not enjoying it . . . It’s definitely not going to be avoided,” Mr Ellis said.
But he believes the British system gives local authorities “a lot more control” than elsewhere, because privately owned scooters are still illegal. “Unless you as an operator have paired up with a local authority, you can’t put the scooters down at all,” he said.
“Fundamentally it will be a more controlled rollout with better regulations than any other market in Europe,” said Mr Hjelm, whose scooters are already in 45 cities across the continent.
The UK government’s hope is that e-scooters will allow more people to go back to the office without having to crowd trains and buses, risking Covid-19 infection, and without adding to road congestion or emissions generated by cars.
The West Midlands scheme is one of several in the UK to be awarded to a single provider, a marked difference between the UK market and other cities around the world where a handful of companies typically compete.
“It is especially unusual in Europe to see the monopoly approach,” said Patrick Studener, head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Bird, which pioneered scooter sharing in California in 2017. “I don’t think [local authorities] will learn as much.”
Mr Hodgins, whose company Ginger launched England’s first scheme, in the north-eastern Tees Valley area, said he was concerned that the “vast majority of local authorities are going for single provider”, as it made it harder for new local players to scale up.
“The problem is, the UK industry is only opening up right now. The Silicon Valley and European providers have had a two-year head start,” he said.
Beryl’s Mr Ellis said the initial 12-month pilots, combined with the lack of certainty that the government will eventually allow longer-term deployment, made it harder for smaller companies to compete.
“There are one or two [cities] we’ve chosen not to apply for because the level of investment required to make it work would be just too great for a 12-month contract,” he said.
In most cities, competition has been intense. More than a dozen companies had been vying for the West Midlands contract before it was awarded to Voi, said Mr Hjelm.
“In the end they preferred to have one partner to invest deeply in the region,” he said. “You won’t get the insane things you saw, for example, in Paris where 10 operators were fighting for market share, and fighting each other until death . . . No one was making money.”
Paris has been seen as the world’s largest e-scooter market. The French capital recently issued permits to Silicon Valley-based Lime, Germany’s Tier Mobility and local French operator Dott in the hope of bringing order to a city that had been overrun with more than 20,000 vehicles.
Councils across England, as well as operators, say they can learn from those mistakes.
Lawrence Leuschner, chief executive of Berlin-based Tier, said the industry was “more mature” now than a year or two ago. “We are launching with a lot better vehicles. We are smart about geofencing, mandatory parking zones and safety,” he said.
However, that has not eased the fears of many safety campaigners.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People told the government’s transport committee in July that it was concerned e-scooters were being rushed to market without consideration of the “real and genuine threat” to the ability of blind and partially sighted people to move around safely, without tripping over scooters parked on pavements.
“E-scooters are extremely difficult for blind or partially sighted people to see and hear,” said Eleanor Thompson, head of policy at RNIB. “These vehicles will be allowed [to] travel at speeds of up to 15.5mph and can be heavy, so we have serious concerns about the risk of collisions with blind or partially sighted pedestrians.”
Living Streets, a UK charity that campaigns for walking, also says it fears for pedestrian safety. “We don’t believe the right infrastructure is in place to support e-scooters,” said Tanya Braun, head of policy at Living Streets. “[We] are concerned that without sufficient designated road space, people will end up scooting on the pavement.”
Early reports from Ginger’s pilot in Teeside did little to allay those concerns. Some young users tried to ride Ginger’s scooters on a high-speed dual carriageway and through shopping centres.
“There are advantages and disadvantages of going first,” Ginger’s Mr Hodgins said. “You do get a few irresponsible riders.” In the subsequent weeks, he said the level of vandalism had been “low”.