I’ve been outed as someone who isn’t entirely positive about the new Lime electric scooters in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. There are a few reasons for the, but first let’s agree on one thing – the electric scooters (and electric bikes) do bring a lot of joy.
It’s difficult not to grin when you ride the new scooters, and it’s clear that most riders are loving the experience. Lime has a very simple and polished on-boarding process, especially if you have Apple Pay enabled (download the app, scan and ride), and the scooters feel like magic.
They get people moving on the streets in a very human way, at the same level as people walking, but with the speed of running or even cars, but without the effort.
Some Background on Transport Safety
The simple rule for vehicle safety is to separate hard from soft, and slow from fast.
That means making sure that people walking are separated from fast moving cyclists and scooter riders, and they in turn are separated from cars and trucks. A well designed road has footpaths, bike paths and motorised traffic lanes, while really high speed travel happens well away from there on motorways and train tracks.
Where we can’t separate vehicle mode flows then we need road design that helps to ensure that the speeds are consistent. It’s good to see the increase in the amount of mixed use space down-town in Auckland, for example, which does exactly that. We are also going to see lowering of speed limits in suburbs, to 30km, as well as outside of schools and in more densely populated areas.
We are still getting it wrong too often – we should, for example, never have a reason for people on bikes and trucks traveling at high speed to be (often fatally) interacting. There is a lot more work to do before our physical environment is safe and we need to keep going.
Cyclists have known for years that many suburban streets are very dangerous for people on bikes (and motorcyclists have too), and that evolved in past years into a road warrior mentality to ensure survival. Being a road warrior means being constantly vigilant about your own safety, accepting that every rider is going to experience fatal risks on almost every ride and likely carrying a few scars and bruises from falling off after car drivers perform dangerous manoeuvres.
The advent of physically separated cycling lanes has changed the nature of cycling, and it’s no longer a requirement to be a road warrior to survive. We can now wear normal clothes, ride sit-up bikes slowly and increasingly enjoy completely separated – and faster – experiences to being in a car. The more “normal” people we see on bikes, the more everyone adjusts, and we are all safer.
The rapid adoption of electric bikes over the last two years (in particular) has transformed what was, for many, an arduous lengthy commute into a fun and sweat-free ride. These vehicles dramatically increase average speeds (many electric bikes are clipped at 25 km/h) and make it much easier and safer to accelerate with the cars when the lights go green. They come with improved brakes, stronger and larger tires for more grip, and riding positions that provide better visibility and ability to brake and manoeuvre.
The new electric scooters are also speed-limited, to around 27km/h, although the Lime scooters only see this on flat or down hill, and lose a hilariously large amount of speed when travelling up hills. These can also make journeys fun and fast, and get people out of cars and into the outdoors.
The electric bikes and electric scooters introduce much faster speeds into a variety of places, and some of our infrastructure is unable to cope. The scooters are under-braked (those tiny wheels) versus bikes, and they are much harder for newbies to turn to evade trouble. On the upside they are easy enough to step off from, but that isn’t necessarily obvious to a beginner. So the risk here is that beginners jump on to a scooter and then get into a situation that they cannot easily avoid. Some of these could be fatal.
The scooters themselves fit into a strange gap in the law. They are allowed to be ridden on the road (off to the left), on the footpath but, according to NZHerald, not on cycleways. For some reason though some riders assume that this means they can travel at 25km/h on the footpath or over a busy pedestrian crossing – and that’s very dangerous. Wearing a helmet will make riders feel more secure, and encourage higher (and more dangerous to others) speeds.
On the road meanwhile it’s easy and normal for scooter riders to be zooming along at 25 km/h while cars nearby are doing double that speed, creating a 20-30km/h speed differential between the scooter rider and the road and the cars, each of which is potentially fatal.
What to do
We need more electric scooters, electric bikes and other power assisted and non power assisted human size vehicles. They transform the way we live and interact with our environment, and make living in a city a lot more fun.
However I’d like see a new set of regulations for all small power assisted and non-power assisted vehicles (cycles, scooters, skateboards etc). These should focus on the use case rather than the vehicle, where clearly we are going to see increasingly diverse options.
Safe at Slow speeds
We should allow all these devices to be ridden slowly amongst pedestrians, or more quickly on cycle lanes or and on low-speed urban streets. These riders should not be required to wear helmets, but they should be required to ride at an appropriate speed for their environment. Zooming at 25km/h amongst pedestrians is dangerous riding and should be treated seriously.
Electric Scooter providers should be held accountable for the large volume of ACC claims, and provide better introduction (e.g. speed limited to start) and protection against harmful use by analysing use patterns.
Protected at High Speeds
However on higher speed roads, such as arterial or 50km/h routes without cycle lanes, I’d like to see the rules treat these devices more like mopeds and motorcycles, with expectations, say, that at least a skateboarder quality helmet is worn up to a certain power limit, and beyond that a proper motorcycle helmet.
Overall though we need to continue to work to get more separated lanes, mixed use areas and lower speed limited with speed limited furniture in place, as these are the only way to truly remove fatal risk.
Riding scooters and bikes, or even walking, is really enjoyable, and let’s have a society where we travel at this human level.
About me: I am a walker, cyclist, e-cyclist, e-tricyclist, motorcyclist (with a lot of international experience) car driver, bus rider, plane passenger and occasional train rider. I live in downtown Auckland and walk or ecycle to work, and ecycle, motorcycle and fly to meetings.