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“An infrastructure that is usable for e-scooters is crucial to improve safety”

27 September 2021

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International Transport Forum analysts Alexandre Santacreu and Pierpaolo Cazzola spoke exclusively to Zag Daily earlier this month about two reports into micromobility conducted by the ITF.

The first report, Safe Micromobility, was led by Santacreu and analysed the safety risks and solutions associated with the rising use of micromobility devices, while the second, Good to Go? Assessing the Environmental Performance of New Mobility, led by Cazzola, focused on the potential environmental benefits.

Both reports were published in 2020, with the interview coinciding with the publication of a new ITF report, Micromobility, Equity and Sustainability, which was published earlier this month.

The ITF is an intergovernmental organisation that acts as a think tank for transport policy. It is politically autonomous and administratively integrated with the OECD.

Zag Daily: Explain the process of putting these reports together?

AS: “We organised a workshop that included micromobility operators, but also authorities in Lisbon, Zurich, Dublin, and Gothenburg, in addition to desk research. We also took advantage of an existing network of cities that is managed by the ITF called Safer City Streets. That was useful to ask for opinions and to circulate a survey so that we could consult as many cities as possible.”

PC: “The report on environmental performance is part of our corporate partnership board activities. Most of the people were also invited to a kickoff workshop and had expertise on environmental aspects. Some of them were corporate partnership board members at companies like Uber, Toyota, or Bosch. Others were experts from universities, and people working on lifecycle assessments.”

Zag Daily: We should start with safety. What role does the fact that micromobility is quite a new industry play in terms of safety?

AS: “It is a young industry and a young product, so it attracts the kind of use that you do not really look for. Some users take micromobility as a toy, rather than a means of transport, which increases crash numbers. Over time, we observed a downward trend in the risk, and we expect that trend to continue. That is due to behaviour changing and the industry also offering better vehicles. Cities are also changing: they carve out protected street space to accommodate a growing number of e-scooters, e-bikes, and lightweight, low-speed micromobility.”

Zag Daily: What were some of your key findings?

AS: “In the safety report we included bicycles in micromobility, because they are a similar speed and have the same behaviour in traffic. And when you look at a lot of countries over the last 50 years, they have lost the culture of cycling – people do not know how to use a bike or an e-scooter. So, the problem is the same. In Paris, you have a tripling of bike use and a lot of people just do not know how to behave. We recommend that cities offer free or subsidised adult training for instance, but that is not the silver bullet. It takes time, it costs a lot. We make the case for better infrastructure, one that offers physical protection from motor vehicle traffic, one that is self-explaining, and one that is forgiving. Improving infrastructure is the number one recommendation from the safety report. It is the most urgent and most efficient solution to promote the use of micromobility but also to make it safe. Seville in Spain implemented a very wide network of protected bike lanes in just a few years. They totally changed the shape of the city and cycling use exploded. So, it is feasible and it is not necessarily expensive.”

PC: “An infrastructure that is usable for e-scooters is crucial to improve safety. This has different characteristics compared to a road considered for a car. The road network currently in place in most cities is not conceived for these types of vehicles. It will be important to adapt it.”

Zag Daily: What did you notice as best practice within safety?

AS: “Best practice from cycling countries like the Netherlands and Denmark is effectively transposable to e-scooters. There is nothing to change – just build protected, wide bike lanes and you should not have much problem in terms of serious crashes. Just apply best practices in bike lane design. One solution to protect bike lanes is light segregation: it includes the use of intermittent separators and is cheaper compared to full physical separation. It is well suited to creating a large, connected cycling network within a limited timeframe. Light segregation is quick to install, easy to fine-tune, to upgrade or remove. This makes it suited both to permanent infrastructure and for trials, which can help to reduce conflicts over the reallocation of road space.”

Zag Daily: What more can operators do to influence safety?

AS: “It is difficult on the operator side because the number one solution is in the hands of the municipalities. But we make several recommendations, including that they should try and collect data on falls. We believe people fall fairly often, and that is never reported in the police statistics. But this is something the sensors on the e-scooters could pick up to help authorities make a heat map of where things go wrong on the network. We also advise that operators reduce the use of a system that charges riders per minute. They should really develop other charging systems, either per trip or per month, because charging exclusively per minute is an incentive to disrespect the rules of the road and take risks. We would also like to see operators stop using polluting, heavy vans to maintain their fleets. Operators should not add more traffic to the city and cause more collateral damage. Some operators are now adopting cargo bike maintenance strategies, so they are changing slowly.”

Zag Daily: And how can the devices be made safer?

PC: “Operators of shared e-scooters have already made significant progress to design their vehicles in a way that is less prone to topping over and falling, helping to reduce the risk of injuries. Key examples are the increase in the size of the front wheel, the use of frontal dampers, and the larger size of the platform for the driver. Speed limitation is also important to limit the risk of injury, and this is an aspect where there is still significant room for improvement when it comes to e-scooters that are owned by single individuals.”

AS: “I do not think there is anything wrong with the devices themselves. Originally, I thought there was a design flaw with the scooters because most people cannot indicate with their arm when they turn, but now you see more operators installing indicators that can help. We concluded that what determines the risk of death on low-speed, lightweight vehicles is contact with motor vehicles. That is the same whether you’re on a bicycle or on an e-bike. Eight deaths out of 10 on a bike or an e-scooter involve a motor vehicle, while e-scooters and bicycles are five times safer than motorbikes.”

Zag Daily: Is there a risk because of the different speeds that a bike, e-bike, and e-scooter travel at?

AS: “Paris is a very interesting place to look at because it has a 20km/h limit imposed on shared e-scooters, but the municipal e-bikes go at 25km/h. Privately owned e-scooters can go at 25km/h, while push bikes are difficult to generate speed on because each block is quite short. So, there is a mix of different speeds and we see no problem with that at all. When you apply best practice in bike lane design – you make it wide where people can overtake each other easily – I do not think that is a major problem. At speeds of 20 and 25km/h the risk of death is not imposed by falls but by contact with motor vehicles.”

Zag Daily: Are there any differences in terms of safety between shared and private e-scooters?

AS: “Little is known of the private use of e-scooters. How many kilometres or trips are people riding on these? Without this information, we could not assess or monitor the injury risk on private e-scooters. However, you know with shared e-scooters that you have fantastic safety features such as geofencing in pedestrian areas. With private e-scooters, you always have the risk that people will turn off the speed limit and go at speeds of 30km/h and above. I am a little fearful of a regulation that discriminates against shared e-scooters, because if people invest in their personal devices they may go at higher speeds. But our report concludes that there is nothing wrong with low-speed micromobility, private or shared, as they carry little kinetic energy. Cities just need to build the safe road infrastructure.”

PC: “From an environmental perspective, the expectation is that private e-scooters will have a longer lifetime than shared vehicles, due to the way shared vehicles end up being treated. If they are also frequently used (e.g. for daily commutes), they can be better than shared e-scooters and private cars. The environmental performance depends also on the policy that is in place to ensure that lifetimes and frequency of use for shared e-scooters are high. With either private or shared e-scooters, a lot about environmental performance is also dependent on the capacity that the e-scooter has to displace car use. This is why micromobility must be well integrated with public transport, complementing it rather than acting as an alternative. If our goal is to provide a wide variety of mobility options to compete with a private car, then there can be good reasons to explore both avenues, the privately owned, and the shared.”

Zag Daily: Moving onto the environmental report, how does limiting the number of operators play a role?

PC: “Quotas can be attached to a license which requires certain types of choices that make micromobility vehicles more environmentally friendly. One example is the use of cargo bikes to service them, rather than diesel vans. Cities may ask for best environmental practices to be implemented to allow operators to deploy e-scooters on their territory. This can help ensure that the offer is aligned with environmental goals. Measures that reduce the risk of tampering are also interesting, as they help extend the lifecycle of the e-scooters. Making sure that e-scooters can be left in dedicated areas (such as dedicated bays on selected areas of the road network) can help with this, as it reduces the risks of e-scooters being left on the floor and damaged.”

Zag Daily: Can this sort of system also ensure transparency in terms of data?

PC: “An increase in transparency with data is something that we call for in the report. The reason is that it is important that municipalities have access to data regarding the average lifetime of the vehicles and their average use. Through this, we can have adequate instruments to understand their environmental performance. If e-scooter lifetimes and travel are not monitored and checked, then there is much less scope for action. Having said this, based on the most reasonable assumptions we could make to characterise these different vehicles, our understanding is that micromobility falls in the same pool of public transport in terms of emissions, although it is slightly higher emissions per kilometre. Under the same assumptions, it is significantly lower than private cars (and especially shared cars). Our recommendations go indeed in the direction of ensuring that there is a good synergy between the use of micromobility vehicles and public transport. Ensuring that the combination of the two can be compelling for users that are currently using cars is the best option to deliver net environmental benefits.”

AS: “This is commercially sensitive information. There is a big debate about the reporting of trip data and to be fair with the operators, the latest ITF report suggests that those reporting requirements should be proportionate to the transport planning tasks that the authorities want to complete with that data. It would be unfair to request too much data when the city has no ambition to perform any analytics with it. Trip data is useful for environmental calculations and for safety calculations, so there is a need to collect that data, but whether we need to collect the exact origin and exact destination of every trip in a granular manner, or whether that could be the aggregate matter, that is an open discussion.”

Zag Daily: How can micromobility be optimised to co-exist as option alongside public transport?

PC: “Diversifying the offer and viewing micromobility as something that can complement public transport, can ensure greater trust in its availability as a way to move. This is important to increase user confidence in the combined use of micromobility and public transport for their travel choices. It is therefore important to make sure that the deployment of micromobility vehicles is effectively taking place in the proximity of high-capacity public transport and transit stations. The municipal policy could require that micromobility devices are based at certain locations so that they can help support public transport services. Integrated ticketing for micromobility vehicles with the rest of the public transport system could also ensure higher ridership overall, with positive outcomes for cities from an environmental point of view.”

Zag Daily: In terms of environmental impact and safety, how does limiting the number of operators play a role?

PC: “Having experienced (as a citizen) the wild deployment of e-scooters in Paris in the early years, my personal take is that the more structured approach being followed by the city now is preferable. However, I understand that the less regulated option may be necessary to get the process started and enable the behavioural change that is required for greater and more resilient adoption of micromobility in the urban mobility mix. I also think that a framework allowing municipalities to require or incentivize minimum environmental standards is important.”

AS: “I think what matters most is that this regulatory approach exists in the first place, whether there are three or nine operators. What matters to us, and what I think is reflected in the latest report, is that regulations should be wise to prevent environmental problems and safety problems but should also be relatively soft because the economics of shared micromobility is not very robust. The potential benefits to society are huge and cities do not deploy so much regulation with regards to incumbents – some of the much dirtier and less safe modes of transport are out there already.”

PC: “Maybe one additional aspect we did not really touch on is the affordability. As a way to strengthen the offer of affordable public transportation, micromobility can be a good solution to help society move towards an equitable transition. However, this may require pricing mechanisms that are different from what is applied right now. Integrated ticketing could be an interesting option to explore, in this context.”

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