The electric scooter market, like virtually every other industry, has experienced some dramatic ups and downs in 2020. In March, for example, as the coronavirus spread uncontained, The Verge reported that in dozens of cities around the world, share companies like Lime were “winding down or pausing” service. Nearly six months later, the situation looks completely different.
As lockdowns ended and those who could not work at home returned to the office, it became clear that old commuting solutions wouldn’t suffice. Public transit ridership fell by up to 90% in major cities like New York. Rideshare services stalled. Environmentalists warned about the extremely high costs of increasing car traffic if most commuters chose to drive solo.
And more people began to try micromobility vehicles like electric scooters and e-bikes, for the perfectly good reason that they allow for social distancing and don’t contribute to pollution or gridlock. Demand for better transit solutions finally broke through to the New York State legislature and governor, who signed into law provisions that allow shared and private e-scooters around the state, with local officials given leave to make their own rules.
Just as New York responded to the crisis, so too has the UK, a longtime holdout in the push to make e-scooters street legal. But the rollout in the UK is quite a bit different, making the answer to the question “are electric scooters legal in the UK?” a little complicated. The rollout in the UK is not a legalization so much as a year-long series of local trials that began on July 4. These trials will, companies and commuters hope, eventually lead to new laws around scooter use.
Restrictions on Shared Scooters
Before the rollout, the government “announced four transport zones where it wanted to trial transport tech,” Wired reports: “Portsmouth and Southampton, Derby and Nottingham, West of England Combined Authority (Bristol, Bath, the Northern Arc and Bristol Airport) and the West Midlands.”
In addition to these zones, “around 50 councils are reportedly interested in hosting trials, with Middlesbrough listed as one initial site.” Once a trial is approved, share companies like Bird and Lime, as well as European companies like Voi and Tier, can apply to operate their dockless scooters in the region.
Alistair Charlton reports on further restrictions at T3: “Scooters used in the rental trials must have insurance, which will be provided by the company or council operating the rental service. Secondly the new rules state that the e-scooter users must have a driving license ‘in some form,’” which means riders must be over 16 years old. Helmets are optional and scooters are limited to speeds of up to 15.5 mph (25 km/hr).
Where does this leave privately-owned scooters? Currently, riders can buy and ride their own scooters to their heart’s content, provided they also own their own roads, thanks to a law that dates back to 1835. Anyone caught driving their own scooter on public roads could receive a £300 fine and six points on their driver’s license. Scooters are classified as motor vehicles, or personal light electric vehicles (PLEVs), “a category that also includes cars and motorbikes, and requires licensing, tax, MOT, signaling ability, number plates and visible rear red lights,” Tech Radar notes.
The primary reason for allowing shared but not privately-owned scooters seems to be the difficulty of insuring the vehicles. While rental companies can easily secure coverage, individuals have a much harder time finding e-scooter insurance, which private companies do not yet offer. Oddly, however, commuters can buy and ride their own electric bicycles, which are classed like regular bikes and do not require a license or insurance, as long as they have pedals and motors rated no higher than 250W.
One hopes this situation will change once local authorities find ways to integrate electric scooters into their transportation schemes and traffic patterns as the trials scale up, and as commuters pressure the government to ease restrictions so that they can experience the benefits of owning and riding their own lightweight, high-performance electric scooters like the Unagi Model One.