Whether the modern e-scooter is drawn on the original invention from the 14th century Vijiyanagara Empire in Karnataka is besides the point, fleets of such scooters have now taken over city streets worldwide. During the terrifying early days of the pandemic, delivery e-scooters were only vehicles (other than ambulances) moving in many major cities in the US and Europe. After mid-March, 2020, the desire not to share anything has brought this once ridiculed micro-device by mobility theorists back into serious contention as the future of personal transport. Whether or not e-scooters gain credence as a preferred transport device in the near future, their footprints as emission-free alternative to private and public transport have not gone unnoticed. Till a handful of e-scooters whizzed past as I walked along the side-walks of Seine river in Paris before the pandemic, I had little clue that an emission-free alternative to public transit has already swarmed many cities in the west. These battery-operated gadgets are a version of kiddie scooters that teens drag along on the streets to free ride the momentum for next few meters and so on.
How demand for personal mobility pans out in the days ahead is uncertain, however, what is clear though is that the next revolution in transportation will surge from the bottom. If cities have to meet their zero-emission targets and if automakers have to electrify their fleets over the next decade, the limits of lithium-ion battery technology will force future automobiles to be smaller, lighter, and more efficient. Covered quadracycles, e-rickshaws, and electric minibuses resembling auto-rickshaws have already become possibilities.
Much like smartphones, e-scooters have the potential to revolutionize micromobility. Once embedded with mobile communications, autonomous driving capability and artificial intelligence, these could easily turn out the leaner, smarter and intelligent gadgets of the future. Not only can it provide last mile connectivity in urban transport, e-scooters will help people cover sixty per cent of the car trips which on an average are no more than 4-5 kilometres. Serious developments have started taking shape with the tech start-ups investing in the future of micro mobility as an option to over-burdened city transport infrastructure.
In recent times mention of ubiquitous traffic jams often kick-start most civic conversations, and sadly end up at just that. Lest it misses out, the inconclusive deliberations leave a trail of repetitive accusations on urban planners and traffic regulators. Crowding of roads by paddle and e-rickshaws receive abusive tirade during such civic exchanges which curiously, but somewhat shockingly, veer towards discussion on upcoming models of cars to hit the roads. No wonder, the short-lived decline in the sale of cars in recent past did not reflect much on the roads!
As urban mobility stares at never ending traffic snarls, one wonders if e-scooters were to bring the next big change to ease mobility on chaotic city roads. The pandemic has indeed brought a temporary mode shift to urban transportation systems around the world. The crucial question is whether urban commuters are ready to balance themselves on e-scooters? It surely calls for additional training for a safe and balanced ride, as reports indicate that one in three injured riders were hurt on their first e-scooter trip. But that has been the case for all those who risked skating boards in the nineties? And, not many gave up.
Unregulated growth and accidental risks did force many city administrations, like in New York and Paris, to be myopic in banning e-scooters in the early days. E-scooters did have their share of urban administrator’s ire but there has been a serious rethinking since then. As is with any new technological innovation, e-scooter is no different with its share of cheers and abuses. However, the pandemic has opened new possibilities of investing in a futuristic transport system, which is lean, thin, and smarter and e-scooter surely fits the bill. How it pulls out against odds will determine its future?
There is little denying that nothing less radical than an e-scooter has to happen for seamless commuting in a city. With whatever be an e-scooter’s current limitations, urban commuters deserve a better deal to avoid being part of the unsavoury traffic congestion days on end. Even if one doesn’t know how to balance oneself on an e-scooter, there would always be help at hand to drive us through the traffic mess. The bike riders of Goa are at hand to emulate similar move with e-scooters to take us past traffic jams.
For a country that is far behind big changes in urban mobility, an experiment with e-scooters can help work through conventional hurdles in city transport. Unless one has resigned to the fate of being caught on a heavy traffic intersection as a matter of practice, an e-scooter offers an almost bike-like last mile point-to-point connectivity to ease movement in the city by bye-passing the clogged roads.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)