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E-scooters are motorised stand-up scooters that have a rechargeable battery and typically have two-wheels. Since 2017, e-scooters have become a mainstream form of shared mobility in cities all over the world. Currently, there are two USA based companies that are dominating the e-scooter scene, Bird and Lime. Together, they have a presence in over 100 countries including Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide in Australia, as well as Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Hutt Valley in New Zealand. Given the success of these ride-share schemes both overseas and in neighbouring states, it is surprising that Melbourne has been slow on its adoption. So why is this?
In New Zealand, the lack of restrictions placed on e-scooters has allowed Lime’s ride-share to take off. The restrictions that do exist essentially only limit the motor size to 300 watts. Riders can use the footpath and the road but cannot use dedicated bicycle lanes . There are no clearly defined speed limits, age limits or driver behaviour restrictions for e-scooters and riders. Whilst cycle helmets must legally be worn by cyclists, riders of e-scooters are only encouraged to wear them. The onus is very much on the e-scooter rider to operate the device in a careful and considerate manner. With little restrictions in place, this has presented challenges and as will be discussed later, has led to some safety implications.
Here in Australia, each state has differing rules for e-scooters. The law in Queensland, for example, stipulates that an e-scooter has a small electric motor (200 watts or less) and has a maximum operating speed of 10km/h . This speed limit dramatically restricts its viability as a transport mode as 10km/h is little more than a fast walking pace. During its trial period in Brisbane, Queensland, Lime had managed to lift the maximum speed limit to 25km/h , and the trial had proven to be a success. As of late January 2019, the usage of Lime in Brisbane included 100,000 users who have made over 300,000 trips since the mid-November launch .
In Victoria, there have been major hurdles for the introduction of e-scooters due to far more restrictive road rules. Victorian law prohibits e-scooters from having a power output of more than 200 watts and from travelling faster than 10km/h on footpaths . If either of these restrictions is exceeded, the scooter is considered a motorised vehicle and requires registration, driver licensing and is required to be road bound. The speed restrictions are preventing any mainstream operations, but it appears that the demand is there from both the public and the operating companies .
However, there have been two trials undertaken in Melbourne. In St Kilda, there is an ongoing trial of e-scooters led by Ride, an Australian start-up company. In compliance with Victorian law, the speed of the scooters is capped at 10 km/h. With the pricing scheme being dependent on time, at 10km/h, trips are typically slow and reasonably expensive. For example, a journey from St Kilda to the CBD would take up to 45 minutes and cost around $12 .
In late 2018, Lime held a six-week e-scooter ride share trial at the Clayton Campus of Monash University . The outcome of this trial is yet to be released
Another limitation in Melbourne is the requirement to wear a helmet whilst riding. In Victoria, the fine for not wearing a helmet is $201  which the rider is liable to pay. This is proving difficult as helmets, unlike the e-scooters cannot affordably be GPS tracked. Lime has accepted their responsibility to provide for public safety and compliance and has provided helmets to 250,000 e-scooters . However, the number of helmets at the beginning of the day doesn’t seem to be matching to the number at the end. This disparity has been coined as ‘helmet churn’ . Helmet churn is thought to be caused by rider’s reluctance to wear or share a helmet as well as helmet theft. One product currently in the trial period aims to introduce disposable helmets to encourage the helmet usage. These helmets are to be made of 100% recycled paper, are waterproof and open radially to absorb forces comparable to typical polystyrene helmets .
Beyond speed, helmet requirements and road restrictions, there have been concerns from the public and authorities regarding the safety of the e-scooters. To date, there have been two recorded e-scooter related deaths worldwide . In New Zealand, since October last year, there have been more than 1,200 recorded injury claims related to e-scooters . A small proportion of these crashes related to a software glitch in Lime e-scooters that resulted in irregular braking. Lime's figures showed the glitch caused 155 "irregular braking incidents" across the country, resulting in 30 injuries. Injuries have been reported by Pedestrian bystanders as well . This raises questions about whether it is appropriate for motorised vehicles and pedestrians to share a footpath as well as the perceived safety risk imposed on pedestrians by e-scooters.
Rideshare companies have typically applied a guerrilla marketing approach to their launches. Often, scooters are deployed overnight with members of the public left to question what they are in the morning; sparking interest. Whilst controversial at times, companies have taken the approach of act first and then ask for forgiveness later . This tactic appears to be an effective way to break into the market, However, this can put authorities on a back foot as their planning approach may then be reactionary.
It is important to understand who is benefitting the most from these e-scooters and allow authorities to plan for them in a safe, effective and efficient way. Some general restrictions that have been effective in other cities are :
- Permits (often awarded via tender);
- Maximum fleet sizes;
- Vehicle regulations, especially maximum speeds;
- Go and no-go zones (such as highly pedestrianised areas);
- Parking controls; and
- High fees to pick up and impound scooters that operators fail to collect.
With careful planning, e-scooters can complement the existing transport system and provide an alternative to private vehicles for short trips.
Author: Ella Constable, Traffic Engineer