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Welcome to Scooter Town Two: Milton Keynes

29 July 2020

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There’s no going round in circles for Milton Keynes over e-scooters. The town, famed for its roundabouts, this week becomes only the second in the UK to launch an electric scooter programme. Meanwhile, the government reveals ambitious plans to fund, assess and improve cycling infrastructure.

1: Hundreds of e-scooters set to debut in Milton Keynes

What: Lime, Spin and Ginger have been appointed to operate electric scooter programmes in Milton Keynes.

Lime already runs a shared e-bike system in the town. While one news source states the company will be introducing 250 scooters at launch and scaling up to 500, Milton Keynes Council suggested a more modest target for release. Spin’s own release does not cite numbers.

“All operators will phase introduction of scooters, each limited to around 100-150 in first month or so and expand as necessary,” a council spokesperson told Zag.

The scooters are expected to be available in August, following DfT approvals.

Why it matters: Milton Keynes isn’t playing games: its trial programmes could launch with nearly ten times the number of scooters that Middlesbrough started with.

The combination of operators is telling. Spin and Lime, as giants of the micromobility industry, loom very large compared with Ginger, although the British start-up is already operating e-scooters in the UK following its win with Middlesbrough.

The additional resources and learning of the San Francisco-headquartered firms may help to avoid the teething troubles Ginger has faced, although just how much will translate from the golden Californian coastline to our rather different British streets – and  riders – may challenge even the tech-styled titans. Having a British player in the mix may well prove to be the right recipe for success. RR

2: Bolt e-scooters win UK approval

What: Not the Miami-headquarted Bolt with the bumblebee paintjobs. This is the Estonian company with the pastel green logo that combines ride sharing, e-bikes and e-scooters under one roof. Or, rather, one app. And now, those minty-coloured scooters are approved for use in the UK under DfT trials.

Why it matters: Bolt’s scooter looks a little agricultural in its angles and is a featherweight at 17kg (Ginger’s Segway-Ninebot G30 Max is nearer 19kg) but has apparently been successfully put through its paces at Millbrook, hallowed ground for rigorous vehicle safety testing. The company manufacturers its own scooters, which is highly usual in this market. And with ride-sharing and food delivery services in its wider portfolio, Bolt is clearly taking aim at Uber. The company is confident it can go toe-to-toe with the scooter heavyweights from the US and elsewhere in Europe. RR

3: New design guidelines for cycling infrastructure

What: The government has outlined its vision to make England a better place to walk and cycle. Backing up the rhetoric is a large funding pot and new infrastructure design guidelines.

Minister Chris Heaton-Harris sets the tone with a punchy introduction to the new design handbook (destined to be referred to henceforth as “LTN 1/20”):

We need to see significant increases in cycling in our cities and towns, and everywhere else too. To achieve that, the quality of cycling infrastructure must sharply improve. Properly-protected bike lanes, cycle-safe junctions and interventions for low-traffic streets encourage people to cycle.

Too much cycling infrastructure is substandard, providing little protection from motorised traffic and giving up at the very places it is most needed. Some is actually worse than nothing, because it entices novice cyclists with the promise of protection, then abandons them at the most important places. Poor cycling infrastructure discourages cycling and wastes public money…

Cycling must no longer be treated as marginal, or an afterthought. It must not be seen as mainly part of the leisure industry, but as a means of everyday transport. It must be placed at the heart of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role…

Furthermore, to receive Government funding for local highways investment where the main element is not cycling or walking, there will be a presumption that schemes must deliver or improve cycling infrastructure to the standards in this Local Transport Note, unless it can be shown that there is little or no need for cycling in the particular highway scheme.

Why it matters: Lots of good intentions, little action. That could sum up the UK’s approach to cycling for transport to date. LTN 1/20 aims to reset that balance by getting to heart of the problem: money.

By making government highways funding contingent on including good quality cycling and walking elements, cyclists and pedestrians will cease to be an afterthought. With such strong incentives driving every project, a culture change should follow. As transport and planning authorities get used to seeing best practice on home turf, they will come to expect it every time, even where it’s not mandated. Hurrah! RR 

4: Warning issued over e-scooter deregulation

What: Cycling UK has sounded alarm about the legalising of e-scooters. While the advocacy organisation’s head of policy cautiously welcomes the possibility that they could replace car use, he also expresses concern that electric scooters could harm pedestrians; he worries, too, that people may choose to ride e-scooters instead of walking or cycling.

Many people are arguing that legalising [e-scooters] could be a very effective way to reduce car use, and hence the associated problems of congestion, road danger, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions…

Cycling UK would agree with all of this, and would add that e-scooters could also be valuable allies in pressing for more protected cycle lanes, and indeed for better-maintained road surfaces. With their smaller wheels, e-scooter users are even more vulnerable to potholes and other surface defects than cyclists are.

Yet there is also another side to the argument. If not regulated carefully, e-scooters could endanger pedestrians, particularly those who are partially sighted or have other disabilities. They could also undermine the health benefits of cycling and walking…

Whether the upsides outweigh the downsides will depend on how e-scooters are regulated. They need to be fast enough to attract people out of their cars, but not so fast or powerful that they undermine the health benefits of cycling, or endanger pedestrians (and particularly people with disabilities) if allowed off the road.

Why it matters: Cycling advocate says cycling is better. Shocker.

Actually, to be fair, this policy viewpoint is mostly even-handed. But arguing that e-scooters could be dangerous to pedestrians is disingenuous when bicycles are also able to travel off-road, are capable of going much faster, and do not require the driving licence or insurance that shared scooters do.

As to fears that people may choose to use e-scooters instead of cycling, there is little data available to make a case either way right now. Air pollution and road fatalities are the urgent issues; solidarity between supporters of low-carbon transport modes, whatever form, is a more productive way to tackle these problems fast. RR

5: Micromobility and the private vs public conversation

What: Are cities better off managing their own micromobility programmes (such as shared bike systems) rather than allowing commercial companies to run the show?

That’s the question posed by one writer, who comes down firmly on the side of local authorities.

What’s playing out right now is nothing short of a transportation revolution – but somewhat unexpectedly, cities have a great deal of control over it. As they take urgent action to reshape their streets in an unusual moment, it’s clear that this change is possible without the micromobility industry that promised to make it happen…

What nobody could have seen was how suddenly and dramatically the streets – and what people need from them – would change. Perhaps no transport mode has seen more support from local governments this year than the humble bicycle, with cities including Paris, Montreal, Seattle, Bogota, Mexico City, and Lima rapidly adding new bike lanes and committing to doing much more in the future…

Boom times for bikes could certainly be good news for shared mobility companies as well, but first, those companies have to survive the pandemic economy. It’s not even clear they were going to make it before a recession.

Micromobility companies followed Uber’s model for disrupting notions of personal transportation. That included mimicking Uber’s propensity to bleed money and, often, to enter a market without regard for regulators. Investors have allowed Uber to operate at a massive loss for over a decade on the promise of big returns after the company dominates the market it created. That idea was adapted to bike and scooter companies, but investors proved less willing to wait. Even Uber grew impatient, buying Jump Bikes for around [USD] $200million in 2018 only to offload it to Lime this spring alongside an [USD] $85million investment to keep Lime afloat. At the time, Uber’s CEO said it needed to get rid of its micromobility division to “preserve the strength of our balance sheet” because it was losing [USD] $60million a quarter.

If the companies fail, it’s unlikely that cities would mourn them. Many already have their own public bike-share services and a great deal of control over designing and operating them to meet their mobility goals. That includes, crucially, the ability to ensure service to communities that have been ignored or avoided by providers in the private sector.

Why it matters: Private vs public is not a new debate when it comes government procurement and the same arguments apply here. Where you stand on the discussion likely says a lot about your own politics and experiences.

When it comes to micromobility, cities may well be able to adapt to lessons learned but what about the design, manufacturing and testing cycles for e-scooters? What about the apps that make them work? What about learning from other cities and countries? What about charging infrastructure and operational workforces? And what about the millions of pounds required for an idea which is still untested on British soil?

At a time when local authorities are struggling to finance schools and refuse collections, can they really be expected to competently introduce and manage shared micromobility systems and the associated emerging technologies that come with them?

More to the point: would they want to? RR

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