Tuesday 21 May 2019 11:00 am

Want to spark an e-scooter revolution in London? Ditch the language of conquest

Follow Fredrik Hjelm
When Germany’s politicians gave electric scooters the green light last Friday, they instantly created Europe’s largest market for this new mode of transport, while making Britain the last remaining major country in the continent not to approve e-scooters for use on roads.

Pressure is now mounting on British politicians to overturn the ban on e-scooters, along with segways and hoverboards.

Indeed, the current restrictions have not stopped many in the UK buying their own e-scooters and using them around town anyway.

It’s not hard to see why. E-scooters could be enormously useful in UK cities, particularly in the capital, cutting congestion and providing a low-emission option for millions of commuters.

Yet many still argue that the ban is justified, on the grounds that e-scooters may clog up the streets and endanger pedestrians.

In this case, the Uber-style “ask forgiveness, not permission” approach to growth deployed by some of the US e-scooter startups has not helped the sector win friends. What Silicon Valley insiders might view as bold determination not to let obstacles get in the way of vision is seen by everyone else as a deliberate disregard for procedure.

Tech companies like to talk about disruption, but that’s an arrogant phrase to use when considering issues as complex and fraught as gridlocked cities. It’s also a dysfunctional and unsustainable way to expand into new markets.

In almost all cities, any transport operation that does not try to integrate with the existing public transport network will have a very short lifespan. Asking permission before you go into a market is essential.

A better approach than seeking to “conquer” new cities would be for operators to partner with them.

That means building meaningful (rather than just promotional) relationships, abiding by local regulations, and understanding that there can be no one-size-fits-all strategy for cities with cultures, habits and climates as varied as there are in Europe.

Tech companies also need to pay their way. The fact that some haven’t hired staff or paid tax locally in the past is exacerbating the current backlash against tech giants. It is the least a transport tech company can do as a new arrival in a city.

There’s another tactic that responsible disruptors should consider: offer data that can be used for the public good. From a city planning perspective, data on transport usage will help with designing and budgeting for infrastructure improvements, as well as increasing both safety and convenience for all city users.

It’s time tech businesses stopped talking in terms of upending industries and winning territories, and talked about our responsibilities instead. Only then will people trust us to run services as critical to a city’s proper functioning as transport.

We hope the UK government follows the lead of other leading European states in allowing e-scooters as one tactic to help cut pollution and improve air quality. Europe’s commuters have shown that they are overwhelmingly supportive.

But whatever happens, all tech businesses need to change their mindset and drop the language of battle and conquest.


City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.