The Rise of the Scooter



Last Tuesday I visited the Olympic Park to partake in an illegal activity. Actually, to be strictly accurate, it’s an activity that was and is legal within the park but that is currently banned on every public road in the UK. I am referring to riding on an electric scooter.

Around the world, many cities have recently seen the introduction and rapid expansion in usage of electric scooters.  From San Francisco and 17 other US cities to Paris, Berlin and Zurich, electric scooters have swiftly become part of the transport mix and a ubiquitous sight on the roads. Santa Monica, with a population of just over 90,000 people, has 50,000 regular users of electric scooters.

Despite this, electric scooters are currently in a legal grey area within the UK. As the law currently stands they are classified as Personal Light Electric Vehicles (PLEVs), meaning they can only be ridden on private land. They cannot be used on public roads because they are low-powered. However due to their lack of pedals they cannot be used in cycle lanes or on pavements.

There are clearly opportunities for electric scooters to play a role in London’s transport mix. For example, there are many Londoners who do not ride bikes but would be comfortable riding an electric scooter. Many people might use electric scooters for ‘last mile transport’, completing their journey from their train or Tube stop to their home. Electric scooters are smaller than bicycles, so they would take up less road space and less parking space.

There is, therefore, an obvious role for the Mayor to work with and coordinate the efforts of stakeholders and to lobby the Government to change the law. This should cost the Mayor – by which I mean London taxpayers – a relatively tiny amount of money, but if the case was made successfully it would mean the rollout of another efficient and effective transport option on London’s streets. Furthermore, judging by these scooters’ success elsewhere and by the number of electric scooters I see being used illegally in London, there is clearly a market for them.

Unfortunately, such proactivity is notable by its absence. Although it is worth noting that there are currently trials on the private paths in the Olympic Park, there are opportunities to do far more. Despite this, when questioned about what plans there are to change the law on electric scooters, it seems that TfL gives a consistent answer. Specifically, TfL argues that “it’s up to the DfT to decide which vehicles are road legal and which aren’t. And the DfT is unequivocal in its stance: electric scooters aren’t legal on the streets, and it has no plans to change that law.”  When it is clear that the licensing of electric scooters would benefit London and Londoners and would play a crucial part in moving towards the Mayor’s target on reducing car usage, it is hugely regrettable that the Mayor has yet to grasp this challenge.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Sadiq Khan, who as Mayor never misses an opportunity to try and shift the blame for his failings to the Government, seemingly has no interest in pushing for more powers in an area where devolution would make a real difference. There is a strong argument that it does not make sense for cities such as London to be required to ask the Central Government’s permission to make decisions on issues such as whether or not to licence vehicles such as electric scooters.

When Central Government is getting in the way of a decision being made then, as a matter of principle, that decision should be devolved to the lowest viable level. And, as a matter of principle, this should be true even when the lowest viable level is Sadiq Khan (if only for another nine months). The logic of this position is twofold: first, devolving the decision should make the decision a simpler one. For example deciding whether or not something is suitable for London is more straightforward than deciding whether or not it is suitable for the whole country. Secondly, devolution should enable comparison between different areas so voters can best judge the success of a decision.

Even better than waiting for the Government to devolve individual decisions would be a presumption of subsidiarity. That would mean that decisions, such as whether or not to licence electric scooters, would automatically be taken at the lowest possible level. That would be a real victory for localism and, by extension, for the free market.

Keith Prince is a London Assembly Member for Havering & Redbridge. Follow him on twitter: @KeithPrinceAM