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Opinion: Are electric scooters a threat to the e-bike industry?

Published January 4, 2019

By Richard Thorpe

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Editor's note: Thorpe is the founder and designer of Gocycle.

Before I present my thoughts, it is only fair that I provide an introduction and confess that I have been involved in the electric bike industry for more than 16 years. My electric journey began in 2002 when I left McLaren Cars to set up my own business, Gocycle, with the mission of developing the world's best urban electric bike.

Sixteen years on, and four models later, we are now an established industry player and continue to pioneer and push boundaries in our ongoing quest to design the perfect urban electric bike — and I truly believe that electric bikes are the best solution for personal, healthy, sustainable urban transport.

Silicon Valley Capitalizing on Public Transport Pressure

The electric scooter (e-scooter) boom has taken many by surprise, including those who set legislation in our cities. But, why have they taken off so quickly? It's a combination of Silicon Valley's deep pockets and relentless, possibly reckless, drive to deploy disruptive technology and the fact that cities are dealing with more pressure on public transport infrastructure than ever before with ever decreasing budgets. A match made in heaven. No city is going to turn down a company saying we will solve your transport issues, and guess what, you don't have to pay for any of it. We will supply all of the vehicles, service them, and support them. And they're electric — so they must be green and environmentally sustainable ...

Four Issues with Electric Scooters

The first immediate problem is that currently e-scooters have little or no legal right to be used on public sidewalks or roads — especially at the speeds they are capable of traveling of (15 mph+). That's a big problem for the safety of pedestrians as well as road users like cars, trucks, bicycles and motorcycles — not to mention the e-scooter user themselves. There are knee-jerk reactions already happening. In Denver, for example, local government officials are rushing through a bill to allow e-scooters to ride on roads. There appears to be little to no consultation with other important stakeholders like other road users. It's a recipe for future conflict and confrontation.

The second immediate problem is that, in my opinion, e-scooters are not well-suited for safe travel at speeds and distances greater than a few miles on roads. They are billed as "last mile" solutions. And this is exactly the negative nature of what they encourage — less walking and more sedentary lifestyles. Commuters that normally catch their train and walk that last mile are now presented with a solution to sit or stand on an e-scooter instead, then at their desk all day, and stand back to the station after work. Just watch Disney's "WALL-E" and you can see the dystopian future this could contribute to! With Type 2 diabetes on the rise we all need to move more and sit/stand less. I think that's a real problem with e-scooter solutions.

Looking further ahead, I'm not convinced that e-scooter companies have a plan in place for recycling all of the lithium batteries that are being left in our neighborhoods. What seems like a sustainable mode of transport could quickly become even more damaging to our environment in the future if this is not carefully considered. With the sharing economy there is little to no responsibility that comes with pride of ownership, and given that e-scooters can currently be left anywhere, it seems that there is little or no respect for local residents.

In addition, there seems to be a problem with the business model long term. When traditional docking station bicycles were first coming onto the scene many years ago, we were approached to provide a version of Gocycle as the e-bike. It became very clear in talking with the operators that the density required for having enough bicycles available to be "convenient" is orders of magnitude higher than any sharing program or docking station program currently has. We are talking about the density of bus stops — and even then, many people think more than half a mile to walk to a bus stop is not convenient.

So, in order to make e-scooters convenient for everyone to use, it would appear that you perhaps need maybe five times the number of available scooters compared to the number of actual riders. I'm not saying these companies can't be profitable with current levels of available units, but for e-scooters to become a genuine solution citywide — more than an interesting, fun, albeit sedentary way of getting about town — we are going to have to have huge numbers of them lying about everywhere.

Need for Consistent Legislation & Safety

Regulation needs to be fair and consistent for all modes of transport. If e-scooters are going to be allowed to share the road, they need regulations like bikes, electric bikes, cars, motorcycles and mopeds have.

I think there is a fundamental problem with e-scooters dynamically. They are just not engineered for high speed and long distances. A small pothole, expansion gap or speed bump presents a significant handling issue for even the most experienced riders considering e-scooters have wheel diameters about the same size as a person's hand. Most electric bikes are regulated to 20 mph in the U.S. and 15.5 mph in Europe. But that's just for motor assistance; we all know that the bicycle format is able to travel safely at much higher speeds downhill or even pedaled, and this allows bicycles to work well with residential and city speed limits and other road users.

So, considering this full speed envelop for harmony with all road users, an e-scooter's significantly slower safe operating speed appears to present a significant safety challenge. It's a difficult one. They certainly aren't going to last long on sidewalks — there's just too much conflict potential and speed differential with pedestrians, small children and prams.

The Electric Future

There is no doubt that it is an incredibly interesting time for personal sustainable electric transport in our cities. I believe that in the next five years we will continue to see a lot of confrontation and a bit of a mess as cities work out how best to integrate e-scooters, electric bikes and bike sharing modes into society. But the plus side of all of this is that we will see more and more people getting out of cars and trying out better forms of urban transport. That's going to create huge opportunities for electric bike dealers and OEMs trying to convert forward-looking consumers who are converting to using two-wheel electric vehicles for urban transport.

Long term, I believe that two to five socially responsible operators will emerge and cities will choose to work with only those that respect communities and work harmoniously with all existing legitimate road users. It's going to be interesting to see how it all ends up — perhaps cities will end up having to take over management of what these companies start because sharing may not always be that caring ...

Electric Scooters as a Catalyst

By now you will have a good picture of my feelings toward e-scooters, but I do genuinely believe, for all their faults, that the electric scooter boom can help to act as a positive catalyst for change in our cities, if properly legislated and if Silicon Valley doesn't "move too fast and break stuff," as they say. The more electric two-wheel transport solutions on urban roads the better.

Half the challenge of addressing pollution, the dominance of carbon and sedentary transport is motivating people to get out of their cars and onto the roads. The more people taking up alternative travel options the better, as this will inspire others to do the same. We have seen this in London with cycling. Over the years, cycling has become much more prevalent as users feel more confident when seeing other riders on the roads. There's a tipping point too that has started to become apparent at some times in the day and places where cyclists are the dominant form of vehicle.

But I think cities need to do more to make riding on two wheels safer. That's the main barrier to entry. They could do more to tackle theft also. My view is that high-level advertising campaigns are needed to raise the perceived value of every user out there on two wheels and help to build more mutual respect among road users. Government incentives to commute on bicycles or e-bikes would really help — these healthy alternatives will have a positive impact on reducing health costs.

Whether it is an e-scooter, e-bike or bike sharing, I believe that many users who try these systems perhaps out of curiosity, adventure or fun will discover that getting around town on two wheels is the way to go — it will become the norm. Making the step toward personal ownership and with that — unparalleled convenience — for example, so you can rely on your vehicle to be ready for you in the morning or after work, will be a no-brainer. So, I'm genuinely encouraged about the impact e-scooters can have on our business and the wider electric bike community and industry.

In summary, I do not see the electric scooter boom as a threat to the future of electric bikes. However, I truly believe that electric bicycles will become the dominant form of healthy and sustainable urban transport. They have so many advantages: They are healthy, almost all people feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle, they have higher speed capability, can travel longer distances, and can carry more stuff like groceries or items for work. And bikes have been a universally accepted road user for more than a century.

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