A year ago the e-scooter trial was launched in the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). The Department for Transport (DfT) gave permission for agreed areas across England to trial the use of this new and innovative transport option. The e-scooter launch took place during the autumn and winter of 2020s Covid crisis and I was very proud to have agreed to this trial in Bath, one of the first locations for VOI’s e-scooter “hop on hop off” roll out in the UK.
At that time in my role as Joint Cabinet Member for Transport Services at B&NES I was very pleased to lead the way on thinking differently about transport at a local level. It is very clear that our air is filled with pollution, our streets are clogged with cars and people are suffering health issues through lack of activity. What is also clear is how expensive public transport is and how unreliable the service can sometimes be. E-Scooters are a great way for local people to move around economically and environmentally, in fact e-scooters are very much a tool in the kit needed to fight social justice. It is well known that poorer people have less access to private cars and move around less because of the lack of access to private cars, and many still have to get to full time jobs, education and want to see family and friends.
The trial of e-scooters at WECA was initiated by the Metro Mayor Tim Bowles, Bristol’s Transport Cabinet lead and myself in Bath. It was very clear at the outset that many people were actively hostile to this new form of transport. In fact I was contacted by residents and Councillors who wanted to stop the trial. The DfT are very clear that being part of this e-scooter trial gives the Government key information about how best to legalise this form of transport. It also allows the companies, such as VOI to collect a rich data set on who is using e-scooters, where they are being used and for how long. This information is literally a goldmine.
WECA have to date released the following information that in the last year over one million rides have taken place and over three million kilometres have been travelled on e-scooters around the region. The e-scooter operator Voi estimates that around 370,000 car trips have been replaced since the beginning of the trial, reducing over 200 tonnes of C02 emissions. This is interesting data.
What we do not know yet is the age of users, the gender of users and the socio-economic overlay onto areas of deprivation.
For many years the active travel community has tried enormously hard to get women on bikes, but despite all the efforts only 24.7% of riders are women. Should the percentage of e-scooter users be higher than this, then it really shows what an important break-through this new form of transport will have. As a woman, it was quite clear to me that many women do not cycle for a great many reasons from being too dangerous to getting hot and sweaty and looking messy. A very senior female Director I know told me how she loved the idea of e-scooters, as she could turn up to a meeting looking the part, make up and hair in place . She did not feel that this was an option on a bicycle. So should the data on e-scooters show that the percentage of women riding them is somewhere near 40%, it will be a clear sign of the success of this scheme for behaviour change in women in active travel.
The age of users will also be interesting to learn – the E-scooter trial presently requires all users to have a full or provisional driving license, so anyone from the age of 16 can use them with the right forms. Many young people again do not have access to private vehicles or if they do the cost of insurance is very high. Data shows that the biggest users of buses are teenage women. Again in a piece of research I conducted on travel behaviour, young women repeatedly told me how afraid they felt at night waiting for buses and walking home. With the recent deaths of both Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, young women feel vulnerable and have few alternatives other than getting in a private vehicle. E-scooters offers a level of independence in the public realm for all young people at a time when public transport is expensive and often unreliable and provides another form of travel space which they can have control over.
The roll out of VOI’s e-scooters in Bath and Bristol has been different. Bristol was very quick to realise the positive impact that this form of transport could bring to those in the lower socio economic bracket. The long term lease model allows users to rent an e-scooter for £35 for a month – far cheaper than any form of public transport. Bath was offered a greater roll out, but some Ward Councillors refused to allow the extension of the hop on hop off option, citing issues over safety for vulnerable people. The safety of all people at all times is critical, it is though interesting, to consider how we rarely notice how many car accidents or incidents take place daily. How many cars maim and kill people every year and how we are quite happy with our car centred vision to only see the positives of car use, failing to take account of the cost to public health, GDP and the tax-payer. So I was very surprised by this negativity and would like to say how important I think a transport strategy needs to be that thinks differently about users in areas of deprivation and how they can access transport options that are affordable and give them independence.
E-scooters will require all of us to reconsider how we use the public realm. Where should e-scooters be left – on the pavements or in designated spaces on the highway in the same ways cars are able to be parked? The argument that they create clutter and get in peoples way is of course important, but there is rarely a day I walk down a street and don’t have to avoid bins, bus stops, A-boards, shopping trolleys, tables and chairs. The list is endless. As with all forms of new transport, it does take time to embed them into our lives and for all of us to understand the correct way to use them.
What is most important for e-scooter users in Bath is the need for access to safe routes. I have been campaigning to put in place LTN1/20 standard cycling infrastructure not only for cyclists but also for those using other forms of active travel methods, including disabled mobility scooters and e-scooters. Should B&NES Council agree to extend the roll out of e-scooters across a wider geographical area of the city, understanding the user data will be important. If the users are young people with a high number of women, then clearly the need for a safe routes to the universities will be essential. North Road is the only viable hill to the University of Bath. VOI have already stated that they will not support e-scooters on Widcombe Hill due to its steepness.
If we all really believe in actively working towards bringing down CO2 levels, it is clear that how we move around will have to be done differently. Only this week, the fuel crisis has shown how having other travel alternatives is important. E-scooters really do offer that alternative, but Liberal Democrat Councillors will have to put in place the necessary active travel infrastructure and deliver North Road so that an active transport strategic network is in place for all e-scooter users. (Fyi: 4000 students live on site at University of Bath Campus).
Giving young people, giving young women, giving those in the lower socio- economic bracket a real transport alternative to safely getting around is part of the journey to bring about change to the climate emergency, to public health and to social justice. I look forward to WECA releasing further data on e-scooters usage across the region, which I very much hope supports my many points.
B&NES Strategic Active Travel Map for Bath