Why docking could be a gamechanger for micromobility in cities

Published on Feb 03, 2021 by Polina Mikhaylova

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E-scooters have reshaped how commuters, tourists and residents navigate our cities, providing a fun, low-carbon mode of transport. But while the pandemic has seen an upsurge in ridership because scooters offer a socially distanced mode of travel—the UK for example reversed a ban on scooters, enabling shared-scooter schemes to operate from July 2020­—the fact that they are permitted has not solved the challenges posed by their deployment.

The arrival of scooters and dockless bikes has often preceded any regulation, taking city officials by surprise. Pascal Smet, former Minister of Mobility in Brussels, recalls finding “free flow” bikes appearing overnight on the streets of the Belgian capital and having to use regulations relating to garbage to be able to remove them. While free-flow models are convenient for riders to travel from door to door, there has been a backlash from the public, with complaints about e-scooters scattered on pavements, creating a nuisance and blocking access for disabled and elderly residents. Last October, Copenhagen, a city famed for two-wheel transport, took the decision to ban e-scooters from its streets from January after disability groups and campaigners voiced concerns.

“Unfortunately, we have encountered major problems with these electric scooters, it is extremely difficult for seniors to get around when they are left laying about,” said Copenhagen municipal councillor Rune Dybvad.

Parking is not the only issue operators face; vandalism is also rife. Images and videos of frustrated pedestrians and bored teenagers throwing e-scooters into rivers and setting them on fire have proved popular on social media. A US “Birdgraveyard,” Instagram account—which has almost 100,000 followers—has generated thousands of likes for videos of e-scooters being destroyed in ever more inventive ways.

Such occurrences are not limited to e-scooters with dockless bikes also falling victim to vandalism. When Chinese bike-sharing firm Mobike launched in Manchester in June 2017 it said its dockless bicycles were ‘vandal-proof’ – unfortunately some took this as a challenge and within a few weeks a video of a gang throwing rocks at one went viral, inspiring would-be vandals to go on a ‘Mobike spree’, throwing hundreds of bikes into the city’s canals. The firm withdrew its services from the city within the year.

Given that the challenges from deploying scooters are affecting their potential to make a positive contribution to mobility, solutions have started to appear in terms of using docking stations. Docked e-scooters not only remove the obstruction that scooters cause when left on pavements, but also are far less lightly to be vandalised. It is estimated that on average at least one percent of dockless e-scooters are lost through vandalism, but in Strasbourg, which opted for docking stations, there have been zero vandalism-related issues in the last eight months. Another advantage of stations is that operators can provide video and other guidance to counsel users on how to ride safely and helmets can be made available at the stations.

KNOT charging docks in Strasbourg One of the fourteen KNOT charging docks in Strasbourg

In addition, in terms of environmental impacts, docking stations help alleviate some of the issues from free-flow scooters, which need to be collected, charged and redistributed regularly, often using fossil-fuelled vehicles. Research from North Carolina State University has found this mileage can generate over 40 percent of the total environmental impacts of e-scooter use.

Copenhagen had both the infrastructure in terms of cycle lanes and the political will to push through regulation in January 2019 to allow scooters on its streets. Fast forward just two years, and the ban introduced this January shows that operators need to build trust with both cities and their residents and docking can play a role in facilitating successful deployment. Our next article will explore the financial potential of docking facilities and how a small investment can yield big returns.