Rent-by-the-minute electric scooters have taken over swathes of North America & Europe, and since November last year they’ve been a fixture in Brisbane. But will tough laws and irresponsible riders spell the end for them before they’ve really arrived? We look at the logistics, the liabilities and the legislation to see if Lime or their competitors can make e-scooters work in Australia.
The story so far
The scooter-share business model took off worldwide in 2017 and ‘18, quickly spreading to over 100 cities as rideshare giants and startups aggressively marketed their competing services.
The first scooter-share company to launch in Australia was Lime through a Brisbane trial last November. By February over 130,000 unique riders had used their service, at which point it was renewed until the middle of this year.
Adelaide followed soon after. A trial was authorised in February this year with Lime but was suspended this April in favour of operators Ride and Beam. This trial is set to end in October when City of Adelaide is expected to decide on permanent regulations for the scooters’ use.
Yet while Brisbane & Adelaide have opened their doors, other cities have kept theirs firmly closed. Every state and territory in Australia has passed legislation either banning e-scooters outright or making them prohibitively difficult for commuters to rent.
But it’s not just the future that’s uncertain for this business in Australia; most of us aren’t even sure how the whole thing works...
How do I use an electric rental scooter?
Electric scooter rentals are found, unlocked, and paid for using the associated provider’s app. GPS locations are displayed on an in-app map. Once found, the smartphone camera is used to scan a QR code on the handlebars, the scooter is unlocked and is ready to ride. Electric scooters are extremely easy to use; a single kick-off is sufficient to get them moving, after which a handlebar-mounted throttle and brake are used to control speed.
Australian customers with Lime are charged $1 to unlock the scooter and 30c per minute of use. Once parked, the rider takes a photo of where they’ve left it and the ride is complete. Aussie regulations also require the use of helmets while riding, so Lime generally includes one to be used and left with the scooter.
The scooter network is maintained by ‘juicers’ paid to collect, charge, and replace them every night ready for the next days’ commuters. Altogether it’s an incredibly simple model that’s been extremely popular with users and has unprecedented levels of investment.
US-based startup Bird, founded by ex-rideshare executive Travis VanderZanden, became the fastest company ever to reach a $1 billion valuation in 2018.
It’s tough to say whether that investment will be enough to persuade Australian regulators. The actions of a few key cities will likely hold the key to securing their support nationwide. But if we do start seeing e-scooters spread around the country, what will it mean for our cities?
The pros and cons of e-scooters
At only $4 for a 10-minute ride, e-scooters are the first rideshare/rental option that can compete with public transport in affordability. Crossing entire suburbs for a few dollars could revolutionise personal travel in Aussie cities notorious for their suburban sprawl and poor public transport accessibility. A scooter ride becomes especially tempting when it’s faster and cheaper than the bus.
While top speeds vary by regulatory requirements, the 25 km/h available in Brisbane makes e-scooters significantly faster than most people can run; perfect for those trips that are too far to walk but too short for an Uber. The scooters are also extremely easy to use thanks to their lack of gears and wide platform.
But that speed and ease-of-use comes at a cost. Injuries have been a concern in Australia and worldwide, with most cases being linked to irresponsible use by riders.
Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey told the Brisbane Times:
“There's a minority of people there who are doing the wrong thing and putting other people at risk. Police will be cracking down on people doing the wrong thing in terms of speeding and not wearing helmets."
Brisbane introduced a $130 fine for riders misusing the scooters in December.
Theft and vandalism are also promising to be an obstacle to e-scooter operators. An estimated 11,000 helmets were stolen from scooters in Brisbane in the first six months of operation. Users have also been found misusing or vandalising the scooters themselves, including a case of hackers playing offensive speech over units’ speakers.
It’s been seen before what a hostile public can do to companies like Lime. Singapore bike-hire platform o-bike abandoned Australia in 2018 after sustaining millions of dollars of losses due to vandalism and destruction. E-scooters won’t just have to convince regulators to succeed, they’ll need to gain and keep the support of the Australian public.
Do electric scooters have a future in Australia? Let us know and check back at the JET Charge blog for more electric vehicle news and updates.