Electric dreams: can the e-commuter revolution transform urban transport in Ireland?
The big read: In the week Germany has moved to legalise e-scooters, John Meagher meets some of the people who have embraced electrically assisted vehicles and hears how the lack of clarity about their legality is frustrating the potential of this new, environmentally friendly option for Irish commuters
It is news that alarms Ciarán Hughes. The electric scooter retailer, based in Killiney, Dublin has heard some reports of commuters being stopped by gardaí and asked to show both licence and insurance - and when neither are produced, their scooter is confiscated there and then. Some have had to pay €125 to get them back - the same fee to retrieve a car from the pound.
"You don't need a licence to ride an e-scooter and even if you wanted to get insurance, no provider will be able to help you," he says. "So it's baffling how this sort of thing can happen, but unfortunately it has been happening."
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Thankfully for the country's growing band of battery-powered commuters - and for Hughes' business, Gyrowheel Ireland - most e-mobility commuters have never been stopped by gardaí, despite confusion over the legality of such new modes of single-person transport.
"The experience, on the whole, has been a very positive one," he says, "and people who are opting to use e-scooters, e-bikes, or electric skateboards are finding that their daily commute has shortened and become so much easier."
If such electrically propelled machines were comparatively rare up to very recently, there's been a noticeable uptake in use over the past 12 months, especially in Dublin.
It has now become very common to see people whizzing about on electric scooters in the so-called 'Silicon Docks' district where Google, Facebook and Airbnb HQs are all located, and to find e-bike users flying past standstill traffic on the Liffey quays.
Hughes says there has been a substantial increase in sales since the beginning of the year and the level of enquiries to his office is higher than ever before.
"Technology like this can take a while to catch on," he says, "but there's a feeling now that it really has captured the imagination and those who have taken the leap can feel that it really improves the quality of their lives. And it's not just for commuting - an electric scooter is handy if you just want to go down the road to get a loaf of bread."
It has been estimated that there may be 2,000 e-scooter users in Dublin alone - although such a figure is difficult to substantiate - and there's a sense that the number could grow enormously over the next five years.
"When I first started my business, everybody looking to buy e-scooters or electric unicycles were foreign nationals," Hughes says. "But in recent times, it's Irish people who are buying them. And what's great is that some of them have had enough of their car commute and are opting for scooters instead." And, he insists, they're not all tech workers in their 20s. "People from all walks of life and ages are coming to us."
Despite the uptake, there's considerable confusion about whether or not they are legal on Irish roads. Although users of e-scooters and other electrically assisted vehicles feel what they ride is far closer to that of a regular pushbike than a motorbike or car, they are seen to be 'mechanically propelled' in the small print of the 1961 Road Traffic Act and are therefore liable to be seized by gardaí if the owner does not have a driving licence, tax or insurance.
And yet, any law-abiding scooter user cannot, at present, acquire any of those for their transport option of choice.
A source in the Garda National Roads Policing Bureau says that the traffic corps take a common-sense approach. "If someone is wearing a helmet and hi-vis clothing, is riding safely and is not on pavements, then they don't really bother us," he says, adding that there is a lack of clarity at present.
"These electric scooters and skateboards are very new modes of transport and they've become really popular overnight. The law needs to catch up with them but I think most of us would say that there are far more pressing concerns when it comes to traffic offences."
According to the garda website, "the legal position is that if one of these scooters can be powered by mechanical or electrical power alone, and does not require pedalling or scooting for propulsion, then the scooter is considered to be a mechanically propelled vehicle (MPV) in terms of road traffic legislation".
The situation is complicated when one considers that for most of the e-scooters at present, the rider is required to provide propulsion themselves - as one would on a regular, non-electric model - before the power kicks in.
Transport minister Shane Ross will be hoping to get clarity on the matter soon. He has asked the Road Safety Authority (RSA) to study how e-scooters and similar vehicles are regulated in other EU member states.
Once the research has been done, a decision will be taken on whether or not to amend the legislation as it stands. "The department will need to be satisfied that permitting such vehicles on our roads will not give rise to safety concerns, both for the users themselves and for all other road users including cyclists, pedestrians and motorists," a Department of Transport spokesperson has said.
And this week, Germany moved to make e-scooters legal. "We want new, modern approaches to environmentally friendly and clean mobility in our cities," transport minister Andreas Scheuer said.
E-scooters have enormous potential. And, yet, there has been considerable opposition in Germany, with critics complaining about the lack of docking facilities for scooters and the like, thereby leading to some being left littering pavements.
Lack of clarity
Robi Ivic is among those frustrated by the lack of clarity in the road traffic laws. The founder of escoot.ie - a community of e-scooter riders - says he and most of his fellow commuters would happily pay tax if it was so required and would welcome having to be insured. "I would love to get insured to ride my scooter," he says, "but some of the insurance companies have actually laughed at me when I enquire about it. We're trying to do the right thing."
The Croatian national scoots the 7km journey from his home in Dublin 2 to the Nutgrove Shopping Centre each morning. He says most other road users are respectful of his choice of transport.
"And they're interested, too. I'm always asked about the scooter, how much it costs and how easy it is to ride. I think people are looking for an alternative to the way they commute now. I used to use Dublin Bus, but it was too unreliable and I found it didn't always help me to be on time for work. Since I've started scooting, I'm never late."
Environmentally sustainable, electrically powered transport is appealing to an increasing numbers of commuters in this country. Figures for the first three months of this year show that the total number of new electric cars sold exceeds that for the whole of 2018. With cars like the Hyundai Kona - Ireland's bestselling electric model - capable of travelling up to 449km on a single charge, according to the manufacturer, previous 'range anxiety' fears are being quashed.
Others are abandoning cars in favour of cycling. The DublinBikes share scheme - which celebrates its 10th anniversary in the capital this year - has been hailed as one of the most successful in Europe, and similar sharing schemes rolled out in Cork, Galway and Limerick have been very well received.
BleeperBike, the first dockless bike share system in the country, has also been a visible sign of the change since its introduction in Dublin.
Green Party councillor Ciarán Cuffe - an architect and urban planner by trade - says there have been encouraging signs that more and more people are leaving their cars at home and either opting for public transport or taking a far more sustainable journey to work.
Cuffe cycles everywhere and believes it is the most efficient way to get around our towns and cities, but he welcomes the proliferation of e-scooters and other modes of electric transport. "We really should embrace them because anything that takes cars off our streets is a good thing," he says.
"While the growth of e-mobility is very welcome, it's quite challenging to mix e-scooters and electric monocycles with all the other traffic that's out there. There's also the problem that as these are mechanically powered, they need to be registered - but that can't be done online at present. I'm hoping we'll have a report on this issue for our committee [Dublin's Transportation Strategic Policy Committee] next Wednesday.
"And while I welcome the growth in these forms of transport, there are real safety challenges. We may have to ensure riders wear helmets or other safety aids because sooner or later there will be a fatality from these scooters."
Cuffe believes such commuters should be allowed to use cycle lanes and it's a sentiment echoed by Kieran Ryan of the Dublin Cycling Campaign. "This is a hot topic at the moment and one that we're actively trying to get a consensus on," he says, adding that from his point of view "e-scooters and e-bikes are welcome in cycling lanes, but there must be a provision to prevent over-powered vehicles from using cycling infrastructure.
"A maximum top speed of 25 to 30kph for scooters and e-bikes is our recommendation. That is the equivalent power output of about 250 to 300 watts. Anything above that should be classified as a motor vehicle."