new auckland

Invasion of the e-scooters

Auckland and Christchurch are about to be invaded by bright green e-scooters. They're the next big thing in connective public transport - or the "micro-mobility" sector - but their presence in some overseas cities has become so annoying they've been banned. 

Lime Bikes aims to have its e-scooters in place by the end of this month - 700 in Christchurch and 1000 in Auckland. Christchurch City Council has approved them and permit processes are being gone through now; in Auckland there are already rules in place thanks to the Onzo bike-sharing scheme and the company is working with Auckland Transport to get them introduced "soon". Wellington is further down the track. 

The bikes cost $1 to unlock and 30c per minute to hire. They have a top speed of 27 kilometres an hour and you don't have to wear a helmet with them, although in New Zealand that will be strongly encouraged. They get left near places people are likely to pick them up - generally around transport hubs. The difference between the scooters and the bikes is that the scooters are all collected at the end of the day to be cleaned and re-charged. Data collected on their trips is used to decide where they're left the next morning. 

Cameron Swanson is a New Zealand "launcher" for Lime. "There are definitely advocates and not advocates," he says of the firm's spotty track record. "I think they're a really great innovation." Transit authorities in San Francisco have cracked down on scooters from various firms after they started piling up at station entrances, and blocking doorways and footpaths. Another company, Bird, was fined by Santa Monica authorities for failing to secure proper permits and ignoring citations to remove its scooters from pavements. Los Angeles was looking at banning e-scooters - it has now regulated them instead. In Singapore there's a petition to get rid of them as a danger to pedestrians. 

Swanson says New Zealand is a clean slate. "I don't anticipate experiencing the same issues," he says. "New Zealand's pretty receptive to the idea so far. New Zealanders have been looking for a product like this." As for the sudden and startling appearance of the bikes all over the world - "It's taken off in ways that you couldn't have imagined," he says. "The whole industry arrived just this year."

Louise Baker, transport strategist for WSP Opus, is all for the introduction of this novelty, but has some reservations, saying she for one doesn't want an e-scooter crashing into her ankle. WSP has been advising authorities in the US on how to respond to the plethora of new smart technologies like this, so Baker is watching with interest. 

"We need a real re-think on how to seperate them out in order to keep everybody safe," she says. 

Are they a menace? "They are! Because our infrastructure isn't set up for them. We've designed shared paths for low numbers of people on bikes compared to walking - lower volumes and slower speeds. (With scooters) you don't even know when they're coming up behind you. There's the danger of collision - it starts to make people feel uncomfortable." 

Baker is not anti-e-scooters, saying they are cleaner and get people out of their cars, but believes we need to react quickly to such new modes of transport. That may involve re-purposing current infrastructure - such as roads, as is being done with cycling paths - so that we can go with the change.  

Auckland Transport is already making footpaths wider as it reconstructs the city, and Baker suggests scooter riders need to learn some etiquette - using a bell, or shouting 'bike right!' as they come up on walkers.

"New Zealand perhaps has the luxury of these new options not reaching our shores first," she says. "It's yet another case of ‘the second mouse gets the cheese’ in smart mobility for Auckland - we’ll be able to learn from LA’s experience without doing all the hard work.

"We can't just move people in the same way as we have done in the past."

She says local authorities need to support people who embrace new modes of transport. AT is currently calling for tenders for an on-demand road map that would knit together all these different options - public and private - to make journey planning easier. It would include hire bikes, car-sharing options and electric shuttles that get residents through suburbia to their trains, ferries and buses.

Contrary to the clanging voices of frustrated Auckland commuters, Baker says the city is actually doing pretty well when it comes to future planning for public transport. She was involved in scoring transport in Auckland for the company's index out last month that placed it 13th of 24 international cities looking ahead to the challenges. "The most important thing to do - and credit to Auckland Transport for thinking this way - is to consider where these things go."

Baker says in the last two years, in the US in particular, the face of transportation has seen drastic changes. Some that look good initially - such as Uber - are later found to have downsides such as taking people away from public transport. "We really need to be working in harmony with public transport," she says. That's where e-scooters and hire bikes can play a big role, in terms of getting people quickly to hubs such as train stations. 

Baker would like to see AT run some innovative trials in a few of the more densely-populated suburbs to see how such new modes could work. For example, a scheme in Seattle gave residents e-bikes to test, and found many wanted to buy them afterwards. "More pilots - and a bit of bravery," she suggests. 

"Sometimes you need to be bold enough to embrace these things rather than tip-toe through them. Some of these things you could do tomorrow and it would help (ease congestion)."

Baker says e-scooters will get riders outdoors for their commute, introduce a little bit more fitness, take cars off the road and improve mental wellbeing as people get out in their communities and get more face-to-face contact. Even if people only picked one up when it's not raining - "it would still be an improvement if we only had congestion problems on wet days".

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