E-scooters should spur cycleway investment

If you haven’t got an opinion on the e-scooter hire trials in Hobart and Launceston you are probably in the minority.

Private e-scooters have been around for a few years, taking people to work, education and services. They are usually parked out of sight and their users have generally been responsible and respectful of others. 

In contrast, the bright orange and purple e-scooters for hire have been highly visible since their introduction and have been taken up with gusto by young people wanting to have fun on their summer holidays.

We would have liked to have seen electric bicycles as part of the trial as they can be ridden in more places, are better options for longer trips, riders can carry more and they also get exercise, however, the councils and operators have opted for scooter-only trials.

It’s undeniable that the e-scooters have been popular over summer, but the real test of the trial will be their take-up as a “last mile” travel solution rather than as a fun novelty.

Last mile trips could include people whose destination is a long walk from the bus stop, who miss the bus and use the scooter to get to another route, are running late and need a quicker solution than walking to get where they need to go, or just can’t walk for long distances.

The concern is that people who would normally walk to get around swap to e-scooters and lose that health benefit of everyday physical activity.

But the main reasons behind the angst some people are feeling towards the e-scooters for hire is that the cart has been put before the horse. E-scooters have been introduced before appropriate infrastructure for their use and parking was created.

The benefit of e-scooters is their agility and speed but by treating them as pedestrians and confining them mostly to footpaths at reduced speed they are not living up to their potential as a transport option.

This is not a dissimilar situation to bicycle riding. If you are a very confident rider you can travel on roads like a vehicle, but most people in the community are not confident and opt for shared paths, bike lanes and footpaths, or just don’t ride for transport.

Monash University researchers have just released a study that found 3 out of 4 Victorians wanted to ride bicycles but only on off-road paths and on-road separated cycleways. The results were very similar across inner-city and outer suburban areas and between men and women.

Imagine if the Tasmanian Government and local councils had invested in separated cycleways like Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are doing. It would have meant that e-scooters would have had a place to travel separated from people walking and people driving, and going at roughly the same pace as bicycle riders.

While we have off-road paths leading in to Hobart and Launceston, we have no on-road separated cycleways of any useful length to get us from these paths to shops, workplaces and schools.

The Tasmanian Bicycle Council responded to this problem in 2019 with a plan for Hobart’s CBD that would create a bi-directional cycleway loop around the city with connections to Elizabeth Street, the Intercity Cycleway and Rivulet Path.

If new transport options like e-scooters are going to work, we need our governments to step up and fund the infrastructure needed for their safe operation.

Hobart and Launceston councils have developed rough plans for separated cycleways but they are largely unfunded. We need commitments from state and federal governments to properly fund urban cycleway networks that we can all use regardless of age, confidence or ability.

The other issue with e-scooters is parking. It’s obvious that the geofencing and other technical fixes to determine where scooters are left are limited in effectiveness. We’ve all seen scooters in the middle of footpaths, creating an annoyance for most of us but a real hazard for people with sight and mobility impairments.

It wouldn’t take long for Hobart and Launceston councils to designate parking areas for the scooters that are clearly marked and signed.

These could be in areas to the sides of paths where they are not going to create a hazard like Collins Court or Civic Square. In streets that don’t have this excess public space, car parks could be converted. Other cities with e-scooters for hire have used on-street and off-street car parks to create scooter parking bays with and without racks. 

This would keep them off thoroughfares, give greater certainty to all path users and ensure people with disabilities are not unfairly disadvantaged.