What I learned when I became an electric scooter rider

COMMENT & ANALYSES: I never thought I’d become a personal case study of a commuter resistant to cycling uptake. I have no problem using my bicycle in the relatively quiet streets of my home town, Dundalk, but recently my life has taken turns that see me in Dublin more often, for the past two weeks commuting daily. I can’t use a bicycle in Dublin.

It’s not that the train can’t accommodate my bicycle — facilities are not great, but it can be done. It’s not that I couldn’t use a DublinBike if I don’t want to hassle with bringing my own. It’s that I’m terrified.

A few years ago I watched a shocking number of drivers behaving with outright aggression, at extremely dangerous speeds, towards two other cyclists correctly keeping to a middle lane that became the left lane down the road after a fork. Ever since, I cannot bring myself to ride a bike in Dublin.

I’d noted the high level of aggression in Dublin drivers before, but that incident just pushed me over the edge. I am not putting myself at that kind of risk, I’m sorry.

Add to this a very high tendency to motion sickness (buses, especially packed, are out), quite severe foot pain when standing for more than ten minutes (packed Luas carriage is agony), and a reluctance to walk several kilometres per day carrying a backpack and a heavy laptop case, and my options are limited.

How could I travel on the footpath safely, but faster than walking and with a vehicle to which I could hook my laptop case? My answer to that question was a flicker — more secure with its three wheels than a traditional kick-scooter.

I loved it so much, but I felt it was not ideal, as its design has an inherent demand for a lot more space than the width of you. On busy, sometimes narrow footpaths, I felt it wasn’t fair to my fellow commuters. On top of this I started a temporary teaching contract requiring a full 10km scooting every day, but I’d just have to get really, really fit. I was just contemplating a two-wheel kick-scooter so I’d at least take up less space, when my kids and also-kid (daughter’s S.O.) colluded with a dear friend to all together buy me….

…an electric scooter.

I was elated and horrified in equal measures. Since observing the troubling interactions between cyclists and motorbikes* in cycle lanes in Amsterdam, I have developed a theory that it is not possible to move in a shared space without discomforting, alarming, and intimidating others if you are much faster, heavier, and/or louder than the people with whom you share the space.

I already observed that no matter how considerate I tried to be, I could not avoid discomforting pedestrians, and there were very few places I felt safe scooting on the edge of the street beside the footpath. How much worse would this be with an electric scooter?

After two weeks (during which, coincidentally, this article appeared and yes, I have several problems with it) I can tell you three things: I adore my electric scooter and don’t know how I lived without it.

I don’t think its electric motor makes it much worse than a kick-scooter, though I see how a user less aware of and considerate of its intimidatory power could be a menace (mine allows me to set its maximum speed, I never go above 20km/h and then only if it’s clear and there’s enough space. My average speed is probably not much more than 10km/h).

We need to stop thinking of cycle lanes, we need to stop agonising over whether to legalise and regulate new innovations in transport, and start thinking of zones.

Streets should be designed, edge to edge, to provide physically segregated widths which each has a speed, weight, and noise limit for the vehicle used.

  • Zone 1: pedestrians, wheelchairs, and accompanied children on small bike or scooter at walking pace.
  • Zone 2: 20/20/40. Anything going no faster than 20km/h, weighing no more than 20kg (without the rider), emitting noise no louder than 40db, is welcome in this zone. Cyclists pedalling at a slower pace (which would naturally include the less confident), scooters, skateboards, hoverboards, whatever: as long as it is within the limits for the zone.
  • Zone 3: 30/30/60. Faster, more confident cyclists, motorbikes, electric scooter users who choose to travel faster than 20km/h, and so on.
  • Zone 4: everything else.

Doing it this way would allow us to be open and welcoming to any new transport innovation that allows people to not drive. We won’t have to all agonise and spend hours of time and heaps of money to write separate legislation for every new way in which people think to get around. We won’t have to simply accept modes of transport sharing space when it is unpleasant for those who are slower, lighter, and quieter.

As is always the case, the distance between an idea like this and reality is littered with requirements for investment, practical problems, and most of all, the closed minds refusing to spend the cash and think outside the box to overcome the obstacles. It’s good to dream, though.

*I hate with a passion that often the same word is used for something like a Vespa and a two-wheeled vehicle that can weigh as little as 5kg. It is stupid and confusing. A Vespa-type vehicle is not a scooter, it is a MOTORBIKE, and I am prepared to die on this hill.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

2 Comments

  1. It would be total madness to mix electric scooters and pedestrians ranging in age from toddlers to the very old on the kind of footpath we have throughout most of the centre of Dublin. Segregated cycleways might be used safely if there were rules to keep both apart but I have found that many escooters are driven at a speed much greater than the average speed of bicycles and are prone to weave in and out of cycle traffic which can be quite dangerous to older cyclists. They may be the hill that many pedestrians will die on.

  2. I used an electric scooter for a (hot) day last week in Seville. I thought it was absolutely fantastic way of getting around. Admittedly, Seville has a segregated cycle network so the risk of conflict with pedestrians was low. The max speed of the scooter was 25km/hr but in practice was about 20km/hr which is only slightly above the speed of adult cyclists in the Netherlands. I think that a fear of people on scooters is irrational. Scooters tick the box for space efficiency, sustainability, climate change, congestion, and air and noise pollution. The only box that they don’t tick compared to cycling is community health. They are definitely a part of future travel but Irish local authorities need to stop providing shared footpaths.

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