To scoot or to boot – Are e-scooters here to stay ?

Electric scooters, where do we begin? Since their launch in February, they have been everywhere in Melbourne, more specifically in the CBD and surrounding areas. If you have walked (or even driven) through any street in the city or nearby, within the last month or so, it is almost impossible to avoid them, whether parked or on the go. As such, would the benefits of continuing the current rental scheme outweigh the costs?

With petrol prices rising all around Australia, many have considered e-scooters an alternative for shorter distance travel, particularly for locations inaccessible by public transport. In fact, a 2019 Global Rider Survey by Lime shows that many choose to travel via e-scooters as it is regarded as ‘an affordable travel option’ and is ‘convenient,’ wherein more than half of riders in lower-income brackets (making less than US$25,000) used Lime to access transit in June 2019.

The convenience aspect of e-scooters makes them the ideal choice for replacing longer walks and shorter car trips, particularly when travelling at night. This is particularly helpful for Australians in scooter-friendly states such as Queensland, where passengers are allowed to bring e-scooters onboard trains in some areas, allowing for easier last-mile and first-mile transportation. This is similar across the board, wherein a Lime poll conducted in Auckland, New Zealand in October 2019, claims 41% of passengers believed Lime makes it simpler for them to afford to live and remain in the city. In fact, with commuters spending more than 4.5 hours weekly on the road according to a 2017 Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics report, micro-mobility vehicles such as e-scooters help cut this productivity waste by lowering transport time. These time-saving benefits undoubtedly add up. Yet, as prices have risen since then, the affordability aspect is lost in Melbourne, especially as there is a free tram zone within the city centre. Similarly, with its selling point being accessibility and convenience, and e-scooters not being allowed on footpaths in Victoria, safety remains a concern.

However, the benefit of allowing for ease of access to local businesses and points of attraction stands, with riders able to support local businesses and provide much-needed stimulation for the economy. As such, the 2019 Lime Survey shows that 29.3% of non-local riders and 17.5% of local riders rode to a restaurant or entertainment venue. A different poll shows that 72% of Lime riders in Washington DC have visited more local businesses and explored more local attractions since using Lime. With the hassle of parking, the convenience of being able to park micro-mobility devices wherever has definitely allowed people to go out more.

E-scooters have also been discussed as an alternative to alleviate the load on the current public transport system, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape where people would prefer to avoid crowds given hygiene consciousness. E-scooters are particularly ideal as they are sufficiently fast and would not be stuck in traffic as they would be able to lane-filter.

Despite their benefits, e-scooters incur significant costs to the users and community at large. These include direct costs to users, as well as many negative externalities such as a potentially negative environmental impact, use of public space and safety issues.

To rent an electric scooter in Melbourne, you must pay an up-front cost of $1 and an additional cost of 0.45 cents per minute. The Lime study in 2019 found that the average ride duration was 9 minutes, leading to a total cost of $5.05.  Assuming that the average ride time in Melbourne is similar, this results in the average scoot costing more than a full-fare 2-hour Myki trip, not to mention the free tram network is also an option for many users.  Combine this with the average trip distance of 2.5km, and although e-scooters are fairly accessible for short trips, albeit a luxury, for longer trips the costs quickly add up.

E-scooters also may not be as green as they seem. The 2019 Lime report found that whilst 46% of rides replaced a car journey, the other 54% of rides are likely replacing virtually carbon-neutral choices such as walking, biking or using public transport, therefore there is a risk that scooters could be increasing total transportation emissions. Additionally, each scooter needs to be regularly picked up, charged, and moved to hot spots which is usually done in an internal combustion engine-powered van, adding to the unseen environmental impact of these scooters. Some people’s affinity for throwing e-bikes and scooters into the Yarra must also be considered, as many of these vehicles are destroyed by a minority doing the wrong thing, which damages the environment and creates an eyesore.

There are also safety concerns surrounding the use of e-scooters which providers try to mitigate through geo-fixed speed limits, however, a lack of adequate infrastructure combined with novice users has the potential to increase the rising e-scooter injury toll. Before the Melbourne e-scooter trial began, there were 124 visits to Victorian emergency departments for privately owned e-scooter related injuries in the year to July 1 2021, an increase of 359 percent. Despite most injuries occurring due to riders falling off, research from Professor Haworth of Queensland University of Technology has found that “pedestrians are certainly uncomfortable with e-scooters getting used on footpaths, particularly older pedestrians”. Therefore, measures must be taken by the Victorian and local governments to ensure that e-scooter rider and pedestrian safety is maximised, such as curfews for e-scooter hire.

While they undoubtedly provide for a mostly enjoyable (albeit bumpy) riding experience, these e-scooters are occupying a lot of public space. As such, as Dr Fishman, the director of the Institute for Sensible Transport, puts it, “they need to provide a public good” [which they do not]. Regardless, it is definitely an unforgettable experience travelling slightly faster than normal [at top speeds of 20km/h] riding past empty streets. Here to stay or not, e-scooters undoubtedly do provide for a good time.