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Micromobility vehicles offer great opportunities and great challenges - how might the Government respond?

30 June 2020

Nick Jessup lays out the main challenges the Government is addressing in its Future of Transport Regulatory Review. 

While the discussion about the future of transport has politicians rightly wrestling with where and how to invest in bus services, new train lines, and light rail systems, micromobility vehicles are increasingly gaining traction as a potential means of transportation. Micromobility vehicles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including e-scooters, segways, electric skateboards, and self-balancing vehicles, even though many of them have yet to be legalised. 

It’s easy to see why these kinds of vehicles might gain great popularity if they were to be legalised, because if utilised effectively, micromobility vehicles present the opportunity to assist in the decarbonisation of urban transport systems, and offer emerging innovative companies the opportunity to take advantage of technology advances and drive forward the creation of a profitable industry. 

Earlier this year, the Department for Transport (DfT) launched the Future of Transport Regulatory Review, a wide-ranging inquiry seeking evidence on how regulations should be drawn up and adapted to deal with the future challenges that new transport modes are creating. Specifically, the inquiry is asking for views on micromobility vehicles, flexible bus services, and Mobility as a Service (MaaS). 

With the trend towards end-to-end passenger transport accelerating, and a number of business itching to play a leading role in the UK mobility market, the Government has a number of challenges that it needs to address. Broadly speaking, the Government is attempting to assess the extent to which micromobility vehicles, if and when permitted to operate, should be treated like mopeds, with stringent licensing criteria and other regulations, or else treated like electrically assisted pedal cycles (EAPCs or e-bikes for short), which are subject to less onerous criteria. This distinction is likely to be vital in deciding how far micromobility vehicles proliferate, and how significant they are in changing the way we travel. 

Licensing and vehicle type

The question around licensing could be the key in deciding how widely these vehicles are used. It might be overly burdensome to require all users of micromobility vehicles to obtain a licence, but some form of proficiency test may well be on the cards. 

The challenge is the wide variety of types of vehicle and the inherent differences between them that make a one-size-fits-all licensing approach invalid. It may not be appropriate, for instance, to draft the same sort of licensing criteria for an electric skateboard as you would for an electric scooter, given the difference in size, speed capability, and user operation. However, given the fact that some e-scooters can reach a top speed of 50mph, a light touch approach that sets fewer regulations on e-scooter use than that imposed on mopeds, which currently have a maximum enforced speed of 28mph, seems unlikely. The DfT may well decide that speed is the demarcating factor in deciding how the various vehicles should be categorised, with vehicles that have the potential to move as fast as a moped treated much the same in terms of licensing. 

Cycle lane or road access

The Government’s review is also wrangling with the question of where to allow micromobility vehicles to operate. Most cities that have legalised micromobility vehicles have generally opted to ban them from the pavement, and in the age of social distancing requiring expanded pavement space, this seems to be the likely Government choice. Concern has also been registered about vehicle docking bays taking up more pavement space, or else vehicles being abandoned randomly (as has sometimes been the process in U.S. cities) creating potential trip hazards for pedestrians, particularly people with visual or mobility impairments.

The challenge remains to decide which vehicles are allowed to operate in cycle lanes, and which are permitted to operate on roads. Given the wide variety of micromobility vehicles, the lack of a handlebar on a number of models, and the range of speeds at which different vehicles are capable of travel, it looks very unlikely that all forms of micromobility vehicle will be permitted road access. Allowing onto main roads vehicles that move at relatively slow speeds compared with motor vehicles is potentially a recipe for increased congestion and increased danger for all road users. The Government might also be wary of vehicles without handlebars having access to main roads, as this might preclude the driver from having the level of control required of a main road user. 

Micromobility vehicles that travel at a speed similar to bicycles and e-bikes may be permitted to access cycle lanes under current Government plans. This would undoubtedly help to allay the fears of motorists, who might react to the proliferation of micromobility vehicles with some concern, given the potential for said vehicles to increase congestion in urban areas.  That being said, the Government will also need to be aware of the challenge of avoiding making travel more difficult for current cyclists – as any commitment to micromobility options must not come at the expense of existing green transport. 

Environmental concerns

Micromobility vehicles present a great opportunity to move some journeys to carbon-free modes, especially if they successfully replace the many short car journeys that analysts expect could potentially be made by other means.  

However, there are still potential environmental considerations that the Government will need to consider. If permitted on roads alongside motor vehicles, micromobility options have the potential to increase congestion, which in turn has the effect of increasing the emissions from polluting vehicles that are forced into a stationary position. Equally, the Government will have to address the concern that these micromobility vehicles may replace already environmentally friendly modes of travel, such as cycling and walking. If the primary result of the greater proliferation of micromobility vehicles is that they replace existing modes of green transport, the benefit to the environment that these vehicles represent could be lost. 

It seems that the Government has a difficult needle to thread in considering how these new micromobility options will be incorporated into our current transport system. Industry observers will be watching very carefully to see how the Government proceeds, and what distinctions it chooses to draw in terms of the legislative framework that it will create. The choices the Government makes now in terms of the regulatory environment governing these modes will undoubtedly influence the commercial decisions that micromobility vehicle designers and operators make in their pursuit of the potentially lucrative UK market. Equally, the public will be interested to see which options the Government’s review chooses to permit and where it chooses to permit them. Many consumers would undoubtedly welcome the ability to make journeys in an environmentally friendly and technologically savvy manner, especially in urban areas where mass transit can be an unpleasant experience, but the Government is facing a wide range of competing pressures before the potential benefits of these new modes can be realised.