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The battle between regulators and e-scooters is about to heat up

E-scooters have reportedly been given the green light to be used on UK roads. But things may not be that simple. Even for those accustomed to our accelerated tech cycles, the speed at which electric scooters have raced into our lives is remarkable. Appearing overnight in cities across Europe, they spill out of doorways and litter streets, available to hire in the time it takes to download an app.

The companies behind these dockless scooters – such as Lime, Bird and Reby – promise a revolution in urban transport, a way to bridge the “last mile” between public transport hubs and where people want to be. Although PLEVs – personal light electric vehicles – which until now made little headway in the UK, where existing laws still ban them from both pavements and roads, they’ve become especially popular as a way to cross the sun-baked cities of southern Europe without breaking a sweat.

But following several deaths – including that of a 92-year-old woman hit by an e-scooter in Barcelona – in 2020 we may see a wave of laws killing off PLEVs before they have the chance to reshape our cities.

The legislative backlash has already begun. “Fast, silent, and therefore dangerous,” rumbled French minister Pierre-Henri Dumont, as he introduced a bill restricting the use of electric vehicles nationwide, that came into force in September 2019. A year before Parisian authorities had brought in fines of up to €135 (£120) for riding trottinettes électriques on the pavement.

Italy’s transport minister Danilo Toninelli introduced restrictions in 2019, but it’s up to individual municipalities to ratify these rules.In Spain individual cities like Madrid and Barcelona wrote their own bylaws covering speed limits, age restrictions, helmet use and permitted routes.

All of this has created a fragmented and inconsistent regulatory landscape in Europe, making hire schemes a risky proposition. Two months after the arrival of Lime’s dockless scooters in Bordeaux, city officials suspended the use of electric scooters. In Toulouse, Lime’s activities were suspended three days after launch.

“Regulatory uncertainty is not good for innovation,” says Catalina Goanta, an assistant law professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. “The problem is these regulatory attempts are very narrow, are not based on evidence but on the emotion of the bystander.” Goanta says the answer lies in getting city authorities and startups to work more closely, and for the latter to be seen as legitimate citywide transport providers rather than ad-hoc hire firms.

In 2020, expect more cities to follow the lead of Zaragoza in Spain. The city drew up a clear list of requirements for operators in 2019 and issued permits to just two firms, one of which is Spanish startup Reby. “It’s a good model to avoid the problems you have in Madrid or Paris, where it’s a war in the streets,” says co-founder Cristina Castillo. Yet whereas traditional city bike-sharing services are given licences to operate for 15 or 20 years, the PLEV permits in Zaragoza expire after just two. “It puts a lot of pressure on us,” says Castillo. “From a profitability point of view, two years is really, really short.”

Changes in law can cut both ways: this week, we have seen the UK take its first steps towards legalising e-scooters with a consultation next month, followed by trials. As well as keeping the population moving, that could help cut levels of air pollution in cities like London. “This is new for everybody, for us, for those working in city hall, for the politicians. But we are newcomers, we are a start-up, we are learning by doing,” says Castillo. “We really believe in changing the mobility of the city.”

Frank Swain is a freelance science writer

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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