(Bloomberg) -- With commuters looking to get back to the office and still adhere to social distancing rules, the U.K. government is fast-tracking changes to transport laws to allow scooters in one of Europe’s most congested cities.
The U.K. has been one of the laggards in Europe in allowing scooters on its roads, with some restrictive laws dating back to 1835. The government said last year that it was contemplating a loosening of legislation on e-scooters as it had become a barrier to innovation. The process is moving faster than expected.
Previously, some small-scale trials in four U.K. cities -- not including London -- had been planned for 2021 under a formerly-announced legislative review. This week the U.K. government offered companies such as Bird, Lime, Tier and Voi Technology more detail about the “urgent legislation” it was considering to make their scooters legal, as part of a nationwide trial announced earlier this month.
“It’s looking very positive,” said Fredrik Hjelm, co-founder and chief executive officer of Swedish startup Voi Technology.
The government said this month it wanted to enable e-scooter trials on U.K. roads as a way to help public transit networks adhere to social distancing guidelines as the country’s lockdown is eased. Bicycles are already helping, with a record number hired by Londoners last weekend after the U.K. started to relax movement restrictions.
The government told companies this week only rental scooters would be made legal initially, in part as a way to guarantee rides would be insured, the companies were told, according to a government consultation.
Patrick Studener, the European boss of one of the world’s biggest e-scooter companies, Bird Rides Inc., said his company has been talking to U.K. regulators and government officials and would be ready to deploy scooters in June.
“We’ve got mechanics and scooters in London already because of the trial we’ve been running in the Olympic park,” Studener said in an interview, referring to an existing pilot permitted as it occupied private land.
Roger Hassan, the London-based chief operating officer for Tier Mobility, one of Europe’s largest scooter rental startups, said London forced a particularly significant challenge on companies because, unlike other British cities, it’s divided up into 32 boroughs that are each governed separately.
“Pre-coronavirus, we would have had to engage and negotiate with them all individually,” he said. “But people don’t live their lives within borough boundaries and the framework to roll out a meaningful alternative to public transit networks doesn’t necessarily exist yet.”
Not everyone is comfortable with the way the consultation is unfolding. Adam Norris, a former director at financial firm Hargreaves Lansdown Plc and founder of e-scooter retailer Pure Electric, said he was concerned the government’s consultation may be unduly influenced by the firms with “the biggest lobbying checkbooks, and that tends to be the American scooter rental companies.”
Norris said his company was planning to open about a dozen new high street stores this year to sell e-scooters, taking over several sites used by retailer Cycle Republic prior to its closing by parent Halfords Group Plc. He said this would also save “about 90 jobs” related to the defunct brand.
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