Beryl CEO Phil Ellis speaks to Zag about how e-scooters can help make cities more sustainable and why safety training plays a crucial role.
Zag: To begin with, just give us a little bit of background on Beryl.
Phil Ellis: “We are a UK micromobility company. We deliver shared micromobility systems in partnership with cities, and we do this in two ways. Firstly, we operate our systems where we have exclusive contracts with local authorities, and we own the relationship directly with the riders. That happens in Norwich, Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch, Hereford, Watford, and the Isle of Wight. Secondly, we sell our platform and deliver the services of major bikeshare systems in some of the UK’s largest cities including, London, Birmingham, and very soon, Manchester. All of those cities are on the Beryl platform to varying different degrees.”
Zag: The UK shared e-scooter trials have been ongoing for more than a year. What are your thoughts so far?
Phil Ellis: “The scheme is a really interesting one for the future of micromobility systems in the UK. We now have an exclusive system with the city where we operate bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters, all from fixed parking locations. We wanted to get involved in these trials because we see these as a powerful asset class. The whole point of these shared systems is to target the fact that in the UK, 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are from transport, and the most inefficient aspect of transport is people moving that first and last mile.
“We are there to deploy a micromobility system that helps cities and provides sustainable and active travel. Adding scooters into that mix, is an excellent way to bring brand new customers into a system and deliver more journeys and improve the overall commercial viability of shared micromobility systems. The UK Department of Transport has had good fortune that the shared e-scooter industry has developed so rapidly since 2017, that the quality of the vehicles being manufactured and deployed has got to a level where people can be comfortable that they are meeting the first requirement of any transport system, which is to do something safely.
“Micromobility is not an IP-led industry. There is no significant variation in the technology or the scooters that people are deploying. So it is a relatively easy thing for the DFT to regulate in terms of vehicle standards.
“We wanted to get involved in the trials because bringing more customers into the services that we deliver is a fundamental aspect of our aspiration to help cities improve their sustainability. Through doing so, we have found that we could benefit more widely from a lot of the development that goes into deploying and improving e-scooters.
“I think the thing that we have benefited from is where the technology delivers really good shared systems.
“We came from an advantage of always having developed our own technology and connected hardware, and our entire back-office operating system is what we have developed from the first piece of silicon or the first line of code. That is all within our stack and we have had full control. We have also been really focused on the modus operandi for UK micromobility systems, which is operating from fixed locations with enforceable and reliable geofencing.”
Zag: What has been the uptake in the cities and towns where you have launched?
Phil Ellis: “I have spent the last 10 years of my career trying to break down the barriers to cycling in cities. First of all, to try to make it as safe as possible. Then trying to make it as accessible as possible with our bike share systems, and it is a tough slog, but you have to deliver an excellent service. You have to provide a safe service, but you have a high bar that you are trying to compete against in cars, which people associate with being easy, comfortable, warm, and convenient.
“Trying to get people onto bikes is a real hard slog. But by supplying a set of shared e-scooters, you have broken down barriers that you did not necessarily understand, and we cannot ignore that customer adoption. By deploying e-scooters we have seen the number of people within our systems increase quickly, and it is no surprise if you look at the industry. Every European country that has allowed e-scooters as part of the legal transport mix has seen people adopt them, and it is absolutely brilliant. In Norwich, we saw something like a 35 to 40 per cent increase in the number of people using our system and downloading the app within a month of launching the scooters.
“The job of the micromobility system is also about constantly acquiring new customers, and e-scooters have been absolutely brilliant for that. The crucial thing is that once somebody is in the system and uses it fairly regularly, they interchangeably use different vehicles depending on what is most appropriate for the journey they want to complete. Around 75 per cent of customers in Norwich are using other options, including bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters, depending on the type of journey they are making. We are seeing the overall levels of usage of the bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters all go up, which I think is essential for the future micromobility systems in the UK.”
Zag: What do you want to see policymakers take away from these trials and how do you think that they can go about regulating the industry properly?
Phil Ellis: “We hope that the trials are allowed to continue, but we understand that the DFT and the government are in a tricky position. Of course, we hope that they will continue, and we are optimistic that they will do that.
“We are providing a good service; the local authorities are happy, and customers are happy. I do think it is important that e-scooters, more generally, are legalised and permitted to be on the street. Commercially we benefit from the fact that only shared scooters are allowed on public roads, but if you look at transport policy in the main, you can see that shared e-scooters are expensive to rent. We are trying to implement behaviour change practices here that can fundamentally alter how people move in a city. It is difficult to see people being able to scan twice a day, every day for the cost of a rental scooter.
“Now, I think costs for rental scooters will come down for lots of reasons, so we should be optimistic that the costs will come down and the accessibility will go up. Some people who do not want to cycle in cities but who want to move sustainably, so it is a policy requirement to enable those people to make those journeys by e-scooter. You can buy an e-scooter now for a reasonable amount of money, around £300, and it can unlock many new users in a way that bikes just have not been able to.
“E-scooters are fundamentally different to bikes as a vehicle class, and having a motor is quite different from a safety and reliability point of view. The manufacturers are good, but there are far more new companies than the automotive sector. Any new regulations will need to be precisely written with regard to the safety requirements. It also has to go to the level of specifying how privately owned or shared scooter operators need to test and deploy new firmware.”
Zag: What more can be done in terms of safety and what have you done as an operator to make that a priority?
Phil Ellis: “We have always said that you have to deliver safety for your riders. But most people in a city, probably somewhere around 90 per cent, are not your customers. Therefore, to most people, e-scooters are just another thing on the roads, so safety needs consideration with the people who are not your riders.
“The most significant way that we have tried to tackle that is through a resolute focus on parking bays, and we have never gone anywhere and had a free-floating system because it is unsafe for everyone else. There is also a balance between how you make the vehicle safer. We have seen lots of technology features that make vehicles safer, and you have to get the balance right between usability and, if possible, cost.
“Shared e-scooters are still too expensive, largely because of charging, but if we are also layering on hundreds of pounds worth of camera equipment onto every scooter, we are not going to break down the barriers to helping people move more sustainably and embedding behaviour change that allows cities to embrace micromobility systems fully.
“There is capital to invest in R&D that improves safety, and I am not against that. I can vouch that we do it all the time – we existed originally as a safety business. We have firmware and hardware and people working on safety all the time. The other big thing that we are focusing on is training. It is a bit of a low-fi solution, but I think delivering e-scooter training is a huge part of what we should be doing.
“We deliver e-scooter training in all of our cities and towns. We have also created a training programme with accredited bikeability instructors, which allows us to deliver e-scooter training to customers on-street, but also run a “train the trainer” programme. This way, we can develop a network and have a halo effect, increasing the number of people who can access e-scooter training in this country. We know this is really important, because there is no reason why an e-scooter rider is born more dangerous or reckless than a bike rider.
“People should not look at an e-scooter rider on the pavement and think they are being a nuisance. They genuinely might not know that they should be on the road or in the bike lane. They might not know what the norms are or what the rules of the road are. We cannot ignore the cumulative effect of a decade’s worth of cycle proficiency training which provides an innate understanding of how you should cycle on the street. There is a cohort of people who are using e-scooters that have not benefited from that. We want to make a big deal of it ourselves, but we also think that it needs more funding and support from the government in the end.”
Zag: What do you think can be done in terms of communications to help improve awareness of the trials and what they are trying to achieve?
Phil Ellis: “So far, the trial has been focused on gathering data to inform future policy, but there have not been other things that fall alongside it, like clear communication. I wonder if the trial went a bit broader and longer than initially planned, this could be better addressed. There are also questions as to whether responsibility for the trials falls on central government or local authorities. From our perspective we have an obligation to make sure that we are training people as much as possible and communicating as much as we can. Having worked in cycling for years, you learn how not to let your blood boil when you see negative headlines, and the same is true of e-scooters; they can be an easy target.”
Zag: Finally, just talk us through your plans between now and March next year.
Phil Ellis: “We are not yet at full capacity. We know we can deploy more e-scooters into our current schemes if the local authority wants to between now and March. I am not expecting to launch in any new locations between now and March, but I think it would be interesting to know what will happen after March 2022.
“Suppose we can enter a new phase of e-scooter regulation in this country. In that case, I think there is a big opportunity for expansion geographically in the UK, especially with other cities and towns coming on board. There may also be trial cities or towns that take the opportunity to change providers. We will absolutely want to participate in opportunities like that and have the capacity to do so.
“There are certain European markets that we are looking to expand into that fit our overall operating model, as well as markets where it is now easier for British businesses to do business in a post-Brexit world.”