E-scooters on UK roads? Not any time soon

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

E-scootersImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
E-scooters from firms such as Lime, Bird and Uber are popping up in lots of US cities

Last year Bird, an American company valued at a couple of billion dollars, brought its electric scooter service to the UK, with a pilot scheme on London's Olympic Park.

It seemed a strange move because e-scooters are illegal on UK roads, which is why the private paths of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park were chosen for the pilot scheme.

When I attended the launch in November it became clear that this was effectively a lobbying operation, designed to get the UK to change the law. Indeed the UK boss Richard Corbett told me :"Today's the first step, but I'm confident that within the next 12 months we should have regulations changing."

I wrote at the time that this seemed unlikely. After Uber's ham-fisted entry into the UK market, politicians would surely be wary of changing the law at the behest of another Californian company with deep pockets. Even if Bird had also taken the step last October of hiring the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling's special adviser Emma Silver as head of government relations for Western Europe.

But, lo and behold, last week it appeared that the lobbying operation was bearing fruit. The Observer, in an article headlined "UK's e-scooter road ban set to end", quoted the Transport Minister as saying he would "look quite closely" at finding a way of allowing e-scooters and similar vehicles on the road.

As part of a "Future of Mobility" strategy there was to be a review of all sorts of road traffic regulations. And today saw the Department for Transport launch that strategy - guess where - at the London Olympic Park with Bird e-scooters in the background among a number of mobility innovations.

Cue a press release from Bird, welcoming the review: "We're delighted by today's announcement," said Richard Corbett, "and we're looking forward to working with the government to make our cities greener, safer and more liveable for everyone."

But when I called the Department of Transport I'm sure I could hear the screeching of tyres - or perhaps it was steam from an overheating engine. A spokeswoman made it very clear the whole story was overblown: "There are no plans to legislate to make e-scooters legal."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The government told the BBC it has no plans to make e-scooters legal any time soon

The minister had been misquoted, the review would last three years and would prioritise areas that required reform imminently. The implication was that this did not include e-scooters.

As for choosing the Olympic Park for the launch, Bird's presence there was purely coincidental - it happened to be the perfect location to look at our mobility future.

I went back to Bird to ask the company if it hadn't got over-excited."The door is unlocked, it's not open," a spokesman said. "It's clearly a big step in the right direction".

But it seems it will be three years at least before there is any chance of e-scooters being allowed on UK streets. By then, they may have gone out of fashion, and Bird may have decided its expensive lobbying operation on the Olympic Park is a luxury it can no longer afford.