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'Improve cycling infrastructure': Can Germany cope with electric scooters?

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'Improve cycling infrastructure': Can Germany cope with electric scooters?
E-scooter riders in Berlin. Photo: DPA
16:18 CEST+02:00
Thousands of e-scooters have been filling up Germany’s streets since they were given the green light this summer. But can cities cope with them? We spoke to an expert to find out.

You’ve probably spotted them zoom past you on the street, parked on the pavement - or maybe you’ve even taken a ride on one yourself. 

We are, of course, talking about the electric scooter craze. Since the German government gave them the green light in May to hit the roads this summer, these small vehicles have been appearing all over the Bundesrepublik.

But there’s also been many questions about safety, and concerns over some riders not paying attention to the rules of the road - with some even riding them while under the influence of alcohol.

READ ALSO: Should electric scooter riders in Germany be forced to wear helmets?

So are e-scooters a good thing? Or are they clogging up our already busy roads?

Alexander Jung is senior associate in new mobility at Agora Verkehrswende, (transport transformation), a think tank which aims to promote the creation of a sustainable, climate friendly transport system. 

Jung told The Local that any sharing services should be welcomed because it gives people more options, making it more likely that they'll ditch the car.

“If we really want to achieve a shift in mobility behaviour and a shift away from the private car then we need to diversify the transport options,” he said. 

“Mobility services like bike sharing, car sharing, ride sharing - they are necessary to increase the options for people and, in this sense, I think also electric scooters can contribute to this."

A rider in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

Why might local governments be concerned about e-scooters?

Jung said that when the bike sharing market opened up a few years ago in Germany, companies flooded cities with thousands of bikes “without even talking" to authorities beforehand. Not surprisingly, this didn't go down well.

“This burns a lot of bridges at the municipal level,” Jung added. 

So services like these are clearly a sensitive topic.

Here’s what else makes it a touchy subject: German cities don’t have any legal power when it comes to licencing these kinds of services (like in the US for example).

In Germany e-scooters are classed as a ‘common goods service’ (Gemeingebrauch) which means the companies don’t require a licence to roll them out. 

However, Jung said that the electric scooter firms are aware of what happened with bike sharing services and they are choosing to work more with authorities because of that. 

Are e-scooters safe?

Some officials worry they are not, and that 'e-scooter chaos' will overrun Germany's streets. After several accidents across Germany, the country's Road Safety Council described riding e-scooters as "dangerous" and suggested that compulsory helmets are introduced. 

However Jung said helmets wouldn't fix the problem and that the focus should be on the amount of traffic on roads and not purely on the e-scooters.

This is a topic that opinion is split on. 

Are there too many e-scooters out there?

Berlin broadcaster RBB revealed recently that there were 4,800 e-scooters in the capital alone. Meanwhile in Munich, the number of e-scooters is expected to increase over the summer to 10,000, according to the local Tz newspaper.

Jung told The Local there is likely to be a spike in numbers as companies test out the demand, but it should ease off. 

“Especially at the beginning we will see maybe more scooters than demand out there as companies compete for the market share,” he said.

READ ALSO: Impatient train passenger takes electric scooter onto German Autobahn

But he added: “That’s definitely not a long-term problem. We’ll definitely see a consolidation of the market as we did with bike sharing.

"We can also see that cities are asking for a cap so they only allow a certain amount of scooters for every company. There’s no legal basis to enforce this but they can ask for this.”

Jung said in future he thought firms needed to work together with cities - and customers - to get the balance right. 

"Most operators I talk to say that if the scooters are used less than three times per day per scooter they will most likely decrease the number of scooters in the city,” he said.

"The way forward is to have a good compromise so we don’t have extremely excessive scooter fleets in cities that are not used but we also avoid having fleets that are too small.”

And as for right now?

"I think we are still far away from cities being flooded with these scooters,” he said.

Electric scooters lined up in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

But roads and bike lanes are already busy in Germany. How can we make this situation better?

“Improve cycling infrastructure,” said Jung. “This is a win-win situation because it is good for cyclists and also e-scooter users who have to use bicycle lanes.”

It's true that e-scooters must be used on cycle paths – if there are none, users have to go on the road and avoid pavements. Users must also stick to a speed limit of 20 kilometres per hour and be aged 14 years or older.

Jung suggested that “more secure bicycle lanes” are implemented - and widened. 

“The scooters are usually slower than the bikes so you definitely have to make some space for cyclists to overtake the scooters,” he added. “So that means bigger and wider bike lanes - and maybe even less car lanes in the city. 

“I think that could improve safety dramatically for electric scooters and also cyclists,” he said.

What about e-scooters blocking pavements?

E-scooters are often left lying around on pavements when not being used. This can cause problems for pedestrians, including people with disabilities.

Jung said e-scooter riders needed to be aware of this.

“I think right now it’s not a dramatic problem because the fleet size is rather small in the cities of Germany but thinking back to bike sharing, this definitely caused some conflict with pedestrians,” he said. 

E-scooter firms are trying to educate their users by sending in-app messages and raising awareness of how to park vehicles properly, said Jung, with some requiring that users take a photo to show they have parked up correctly. 

READ ALSO: Will fines for electric scooter riders in Germany improve safety?

“I think the scooter companies can contribute a lot to educate the riders and maybe even work with the 'carrot and stick' approach: there are services where you get bonus points if you park properly and follow the rules. 

Jung also pointed out that some companies actually remove all scooters from the street at night to charge them and check their safety then put them out again at 7am. 

“But it causes a lot of additional transport and vehicle miles travelled which decreases the climate balance of these services,” he said. 

Germany is striving to reduce CO2 emissions and one way to do that is to encourage fewer people to own a car. Can e-scooters do this?

Jung said sharing services like e-scooters can’t persuade people to ditch their car on their own. As well as investing in public transport, Jung suggested some further action.

Alexander Jung. Photo courtesy of Alexander Jung. 

Authorities “need to take away the privileges of the private car that we already have,” he said. 

Jung cited the example of parking permits. In Berlin, a residential permit for parking a car costs €20 for two years. 

“This is basically nothing for a car occupying public space on a daily basis,” said Jung. “We give away public space to cars basically for free. This has to change, amongst other things, if we want to initiate a behaviour shift in mobility.”

Now tell us what you think!

 

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