A whopping 580 billion passenger kilometres were travelled in Great Britain in 2020, with 92% of those journeys made by cars, vans and taxis. That same year, 73.7 million international and domestic passengers travelled by air, 8.3 million by rail and 6.9 million by sea, while 176 billion tonne-kilometres of domestic freight were moved within the UK. Whilst these numbers appear huge, they are all much lower than previous years due to the affects of COVID-19.
It may come as no surprise, then, that transport is one of the main emitters of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, producing around 27% of the UK’s total emissions in 2019, prior to the pandemic.
There are various strategies focused on decarbonising transport, with the UK Government’s 10 Point Plan outlining targets to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, increase investment in the rail network and city public transport, and move towards more sustainable fuels.
Electric modes of transport are playing a key role in our transition to a low-carbon future. While electric vehicles are helping to bring down CO2 emissions of new cars in the UK to the lowest level on record, eBike schemes and electric scooters are becoming increasingly commonplace in our towns and cities.
This has got me thinking about the impact of new modes of digitally-enabled transport on our urban spaces. In particular, those which are being rapidly deployed into real-world settings. Using e-scooters as a case study, this article seeks to explore what we can learn from our experience of living with e-scooters thus far.
Why might it be useful for us to spend a few minutes thinking about this subject? When introducing the news story in 2020 ‘New transport tech to be tested in biggest shake-up of laws in a generation‘, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, said:
“We are on the cusp of a transport revolution. Emerging technologies are ripping up the rulebook and changing the way people and goods move forever.”
I admit to a mild shudder when I read the words ‘ripping up the rulebook’ in relation to an emerging technologies, rapid deployment and real-world combo. However, as we are treating our towns and cities as ‘living labs’ it seems worthwhile reflecting on how we might pursue future innovation practices by reflecting upon recent ones.
Let’s take a look…
E-scooter trials and tribulations
E-scooter trials in the UK were fast-tracked by the Government in October 2020 as part of plans to deliver a “green restart of local transport”. They were originally set to take place in four dedicated ‘future transport zones’ in 2021, but due to COVID-19, applications for the trials were opened up to all local areas in the country in the summer of 2020.
As a result of the trials, a range of e-scooter rental companies are operating in the UK. One being Swedish micromobility company, VOI, which has become one of the most recognised e-scooter names on our streets, currently operating in 17 UK towns and cities with an estimated 600,000 users. What started with a few hundred e-scooters available in each city has grown exponentially over the past year, with UK riders travelling more than one million kilometres since launch and Bristol now using e-scooters more than anywhere else in Europe.
The appeal of e-scooters is clear: they offer a fast, easy and environmentally-friendly way to travel around; they are more convenient than other forms of public transport in that they can scoot past traffic and take you straight to your destination; they are a novel way to get around which is fun for a lot of people.
However, e-scooters have also brought with them a long list of problems in many urban centres. Pavement riding, abandonment, no defined parking spaces, drunk driving, pedestrian conflict, accidents, competition with cab drivers etc., all make for a chaotic and problematic living lab.
Lessons in research and design
One central reason that these problems have arisen is likely due to the nature of their deployment. Fast-tracking is fine as long as there is robust research design underpinning any real-world trial. From my vantage point of zero involvement in or knowledge of the particulars of these trials, it seems unlikely that so many problems would have occurred if solid and multidimensional research had informed their design.
We need to remember that innovating in public space is highly complex; many different systems already exist which should work in harmony. In the case of transport and mobility, you’ve got a wealth of factors to consider such as existing transportation policies and regulations, place management operations, road users, pedestrians, human behaviours, businesses and so on… It is therefore critical that future transport development enabled by digital platforms is introduced thoughtfully and with consideration for the existing systems at play, otherwise there is a high chance it will be disruptive for all the wrong reasons.
Having coherent and holistic information available in order to design your real-world trial is essential when fast-tracking future transport innovation. This means making sure you undertake research in the first place (!), that it is robust, gathers good evidence not hunches, and that the insights and findings are then used to inform the design of your trials.
Start by looking at similar projects as a way to understand what has gone on before, where challenges have arisen and what has worked and what has not. By doing so, you are able to gain a sense of context for your own trials. For instance, as we are exploring e-scooters, let’s remember that Paris and San Francisco were encountering significant problems with them years before the UK trials launched. Illegal parking, abandonment, accidents, pavement riding; all the problems that the UK is experiencing today.
“With the city’s 15,000 free-floating e-scooters on the prowl, and cyclists nearing the one-million mark, a Paris stroll has now become a hazardous balancing act for pedestrians trying to dodge screeching wheels and aggressive bicycle bells.” France24.com
Paris has since had its ‘walkability’ downgraded to ‘mediocre’, with e-scooters contributing to the city’s low scores for pedestrian safety and thus styming its efforts to improve the wellbeing of pedestrians. Here, we can see the significant impact on a city of introducing new modes of transport, and when trials such as these already exist, we should pay attention to them and learn from their experience – not repeat their mistakes.
It is important to take a proactive and responsive approach to the way that trials are considered and conducted. The public should be at the heart of such research trials, their voices should be heard and accommodated, and open communication about the trials should be baked in from the start. It’s clear that this hasn’t happened in many town centres across England, a simple Google search throws up a litany of negative e-scooter news stories and evidence that there’s a sense of imposition rather than cooperation.
We have learnt recently that a number of e-scooter companies are now developing a universal warning sound in response to collisions and concerns for the safety of people with sight loss. While we should be encouraged by this development, this is a good example of a feature that could have included in the product’s design from the start, as well as being a requirement of the e-scooter trial commissioners.
A Guardian story said, “Fred Jones, a regional general manager with the e-scooter operator Tier, said developing “an inclusive sound for e-scooters will be crucial to protecting pedestrians and road users potentially made vulnerable through the introduction of this new transport mode”. Make of that what you will.
In 2020 I wrote an article about future green high streets, and am pulling out one paragraph that has some relevance now:
“It stands to reason that encouraging the use of bikes and making it easier to walk in towns should be a priority. That said, once again it’s all about design – and good design at that! In Bristol, as in any city, there are fantastically bad examples of integrated spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers which are perceived to be dangerous and have caused people to forego the very public spaces the policy was intended to make more inclusive (see image below). It’s vital that we establish design and implementation practices that achieve the intent of policy and planning.” Here, I want to highlight the point that the bad implementation of new ways of travelling and occupying space effectively designs many people out of public spaces, as they feel vulnerable and unsafe.
I realise that I may sound as if I am against micromobility solutions, such as e-scooters, but I’m not. What I take to task is the poor design of their deployment and management. For, if a town is failing to deploy and manage new transport modes in ways that make the experience of those urban spaces better for all, then it is failing in its duty.
Context is key
While it can be energising to spend your time exploring the amazing opportunities of new transport solutions, it is equally as important to consider the unintended consequences that might arise from introducing a new system into public space.
Why not explore the project through the lenses of people, place and technology? Who is the new system impacting and how? How might it impact the place (social, cultural, environmental, economic) it is operating in? Is the technology improving the relationship between people and place, and if so how, and how might it cause friction? Just a few basic questions for starters.
This means thinking about context-centred design and not just user-centred design. In the case of e-scooters, while they may offer a seamless experience to their users, how do they impact the space and people around them? What is their impact on somebody pushing a pram, a disabled person, a motorist or a taxi driver who may lose their fare because somebody decides to rent an e-scooter instead?
Disregarding the context of operation can easily lead to damaging the reputation of a place and consequently damaging its local economy. If people don’t feel safe in a town or city, they won’t visit. Less footfall, less spend. Be aware that future transport development needs a system-wide perspective.
Collaborate and communicate
Introducing something like e-scooters into a town requires an inherently interdisciplinary approach. There should be a number of engaged stakeholders with agency in the trial e.g. Highways England, local councils, engineers, designers, lawyers, project managers, public health specialists, residents associations, social researchers, accessibility groups and so forth. Therefore, trial commissioners should draw upon these stakeholders to inform the requirements of the trial and the procurement process.
At the same time, I contend that any new digitally enabled micromobility business should also be paying attention to the multidimensional context of a place when they design their service through to its deployment and management. If you are designing systems for a place then those affected by those systems should have a voice in their creation – that’s a reasonable stance, and one that brings greater chance of engendering trust, open communication and better outcomes for all.
Project collaborators will also be instrumental in communicating your project and mission to different communities and enabling them to engage. Communication and engagement are key parts of any real-world project – two things that the e-scooter trials have arguably lacked in some cities.
If something appears out of nowhere without any communication, it can feel like an imposition and risks breeding negativity. If the public knows what is going on and why, and the potential benefits of the design and implementation, they are more likely to be accepting of hiccups along the way.
With all the big issues that we are facing – climate change, mass migration to cities, biodiversity loss, to name but a few – the need for fast-tracked real-world innovation is a given. What this brief exploration of the e-scooter trials has demonstrated is the need to devise and undertake robust, multidimensional research to inform the design of any future digitally-enabled products and their real-world trials.
It has also highlighted the need to take a systems approach and fully understand and consider the context within which your innovation might operate. Oftentimes it appears that only a partial view of context is considered, which then leads to problems – or weak design.
I also touched upon the need for interdisciplinary project stakeholders who are engaged and have agency, and who can act as communicators of your project. Be willing to learn lessons from your peers and collaborate with key stakeholders – including the local community. They are, after all, the people that any new innovation is looking to serve and benefit.
There you have it. Hopefully, by taking some time to ponder the e-scooter trials, some useful ideas have emerged that, if realised in practice, will help future real-world innovations be disruptive for all the right reasons.
Calvium is committed to thoughtful and responsible digitally-enabled innovation and open to discussions with anyone interested in developing technology that has a positive impact on the planet.