E-scooters: falling between the cracks

E-scooters are very different from the toys that we had kids. Both powerful and fast, they fall a crack between vulnerable road user and motor vehicle. E-scooters are stumbling on a lack of a good, national legal framework and technical standard. It puts riders and businesses at risk.

“Most bike shops currently don’t want to touch electric scooters, with valid reasons. This month’s ‘How’s Business?’ gives a snapshot of dealer sentiments about e-scooters.

They’re not yet legal in most jurisdictions and some brands do not back up their e-scooters with spare parts and warranties to the high level that dealers are used to from the major bicycle brands.

But these factors have not stopped mass merchants and other outlets selling e-scooters by the container load.”

What Will Happen to Bicycle Demand in 2021 & 2022?, The Latz Report, 25 February 2021

Sleeping well at night

The bike retailers in Australia and New Zealand have identified the problem with e-scooters. “I don’t want to spend 12 or 18 months in court.” If somebody dies, on a scooter or because they are hit by a scooter, they will come hunting. Bike shop owners do not want to become the game.

As a bike shop owner, you would like a peaceful existence. You would like to get up in the morning and order, sell, and repair your bikes. The whole business is a pleasure because of the certainty and routine. I sell a legal product that is covered by warranty, from reliable manufactures that can provide me with the parts to guarantee the customer a long and happy riding experience.

The bike shop owners want to make the world a better place filled with happy cyclists. Injury and death is not part of the business model, and they will get very upset about harm coming to their customers.

Much pain some gain

The Latz Report is an Australian / New Zealand industry journal (online) for bike retail and wholesales business. The Latz Report in an article How’s Business? March 2021 reports on the uncertainty of bike businesses with the sale of private scooters. Here are the comments of bike shop owners regarding scooters.

In Auckland, New Zealand, the legal framework is particularly troubling.

“It’s really weird over here. You know bikes have to ride on the road or the bike path. They can’t go on the footpath. Then you’ve got these e-scooters that can do 25 or 30 k’s per hour. They can go on the bike path, the footpath… there’s no regulations on helmets. You’ve got these things that can go super-fast and they’re super dangerous and there’s no regulations around it. But everything around it like bikes have a lot of regulation.”

How’s Business? March 2021, The Latz Report, 25 February 2021

The lack of safe standards is a headache for bike shop owners.

“Absolutely not! I wouldn’t touch them in a fit. I’m very fussy with electric bikes. I won’t even change the handlebar grips on anything that’s non-compliant. I don’t want to spend 12 or 18 months in court. Bosch are very strict on this. Anybody who is playing around with these 1,000 watt motors… I mean, it’s not illegal to make them, it’s not illegal sell them, but it is illegal to ride them on public roads. The liability could be horrendous in the case of a serious accident.”

How’s Business? March 2021, The Latz Report, 25 February 2021

In Victoria, a bike shop owner note scooters can fall between legal cracks. There needs to be a better definition what an e-scooter actually is.

“I’m dubious about the legality of electric scooters, so that’s what worries me a bit. A bike has an Australian Standard and has to comply with that standard. I had a conversation with Vic Roads about this, a scooter is just a handlebar with two wheels – like a wheelie bin. I’d like some clarification.”

How’s Business? March 2021, The Latz Report, 25 February 2021

In Australia, it is to often that it is legal to import and even sell a product but not legal to use it – or at the best, only in specific ways. The lack of regulation and oversight and clarity is a worry for bike shop owners. A NSW bike shop owner had the following to say.

“At this point we don’t sell them and I haven’t considered selling them. To the best of my knowledge electric scooters still are not legal to ride in NSW if they exceed a certain speed.”

How’s Business? March 2021, The Latz Report, 25 February 2021

Booming bicycle sales

Bikes are not without their problems. The safety issues of cyclists on roads as vulnerable road users are well-known and much could be done to improve it with the necessary political sponsorship. The road rules for bikes depends on jurisdiction with Queensland and the ACT being the most enlightened, as they allow the cyclist to get off and away from the roads. With the introduction of e-bikes (electric bikes), there was legal and regulatory precedence. In Europe, e-bikes had been booming for years and many manufactures were riding their way to economic prosperity. In Europe, e-bikes had become well regulated. The term “pedelec” refers to a bike with an electric motor that is activated by pedalling. It has not throttled. It behaves and feels like a normal bike – just zippier.

Less is more with electric bikes. The off-road bike infrastructure is layout out for “normal” cycling speeds. For most cyclists, this is less than 25 km/h. Pedelecs have a motor that cuts out at this speed. Speed is a common cause of accidents – on and off the road. Mixing pedestrians and cyclists on the same path create conflicts as walking and riding are quite different. It is difficult for pedestrians to anticipate cyclists. Conflicts are common. Pedestrians will often step out in front of a cyclist expectantly. This can lead to harm to either pedestrians and cyclists or both.

By introducing the European pedelec standard in Australian law, the authorities have avoided many errors and e-bikes have boomed in Australia since. This is an example of good regulation. It works because they adopted a proven system, from proven manufactures, and a proven business model. Australian bike business have thrived, which is consistent with international trends.

Scooting into trouble

The introduction of scooters is more problematic. E-scooters are interesting and are a vehicle and not a children’s toy. The advance of technology has made many marvellous things possible and scooters is one of them.

Hire e-scooters and private e-scooters are not the same thing. Hire e-scooters obtain a licence to operate a business in a specific area. The number of scooters they can operate is regulated. The number of licences is regulated – two or three operators in the rule. The operators are now typically global companies and have a mature product and business model. In other words, when the ACT Government introduced e-scooter hire in the ACT town centres, they were choosing companies that had the expertise and experience, so there was a good chance that it would work.

Private scooters are another thing altogether as the design of the scooters varies greatly as does the regulation vary between jurisdictions. It is a difficult product to sell for an Australian bike shop franchise due to a lack of standardisation in the product or the legal framework in which they should operate.

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