WHAT DOES IT SAY about the times we are living in that electric scooters are permitted to share our footpaths? These vehicles are capable of speeds of up to 27 kms p/hr – constituting a significant threat to the health and safety of riders and pedestrians alike. Thirty years ago, the idea that local authorities would have allowed such vehicles to travel where children and the elderly expect to walk in safety would have been preposterous. That the owners and promoters of such vehicles were motivated purely by the expectation of profit would have made the notion of motorised scooters on footpaths even more outrageous. And yet, here they are.
Now, before the partisans of electric scooting offer up the usual ripostes to this partisan of vehicle-free footpaths, allow him to freely concede that pedestrians have been sharing the footpaths with mobility-scooters, non-electric scooters, skateboards, roller-skaters and, of course, cyclists, for many years. Unwillingly – for the most part.
Not surprisingly, exception was made for the mobility-scooter. Had it not been, a wonderfully liberating invention for the elderly would have been denied them. That the mobility-scooters travelled at roughly walking speed and were easily identified when still many metres away did much to ease their introduction. Non-electric scooters, skateboards and roller-skates, while potentially as dangerous as the electric scooter, at least make a fair amount of noise. You can hear them coming.
That is not the case with the bicycle. These are capable of travelling silently and at speeds even greater than the electric scooter. Not surprisingly, it was long ago declared illegal to ride a standard-wheeled bicycle on New Zealand’s footpaths. In 2016, David Clendon, then a Green MP, attempted to have the law changed, without success. Not that this stops all manner of cyclists using the footpaths as their preferred cycle-way – much to the fury and, all-too-often, the injury of innocent pedestrians.
That a vehicle every bit as silent and speedy as the bicycle has been allowed to use the footpaths, while bicycles remain prohibited, is astonishing. Serious questions should be asked about who, or what, made the decision. Was it the result of quiet (but obviously effective) lobbying on behalf of “Lime”, the company responsible for unleashing hundreds of electric scooters upon the unsuspecting cities of Christchurch and Auckland? Certainly, the extensive public consultation normally associated with activities involving potentially serious and expensive social consequences does not appear to have been undertaken.
Those consequences are readily apparent in every country where the short-hire electric scooter companies have set up shop. In the emergency departments of hospitals – and city morgues – physicians and pathologists are dealing with the entirely predictable results of people being allowed to travel at close to 30kms p/hr along crowded city footpaths and/or dangerous city streets. Pedestrians struck down from behind. Riders struck by motor vehicles; pitched over the handle-bars; dragged bare-legged across rough concrete and bitumen. Electric scootering’s victims are running-up quite a tab on the public purse. Needless to say, the hire companies contribute almost nothing towards the medical and economic costs of their “service”.
Why, then, haven’t our national and local politicians stepped in to remove electric scooters from our streets pending a fulsome set of regulations governing their safe and responsible use being drawn up? The answer lies in the culture that has evolved, both here in New Zealand and around the world, since the economic liberalisation programmes of the 1980s. In the thirty-something years since “the markets” were given their head, the whole notion of “heavy-handed” regulation has been anathematised. Those who attempt to protect the public from irresponsible entrepreneurs and their enterprises are dismissed as promoters of “The Nanny State” – a political crime only a short step away from full-throated Stalinism.
It is an interesting commentary on contemporary society that the name given to the people (usually women) whom parents hire to look after their children and keep them safe has become a term of political abuse. As if there is something fundamentally wrong with a state that manifests a similar level of concern for the welfare of its citizens.
This thirty-year disdain for government regulation in the public interest has now been overlaid with the much more recent adulation of “digital disruptors”. Entrepreneurs who have developed successful new businesses out of the opportunities provided by the global positioning system and the near ubiquity of smart cellular phones. Uber is the most famous, but it has many, many imitators. With the right app, a company can attract billions.
And with those billions the digital disruptors can hire the best advertising and public relations agencies in the world which, in turn, can make their clients unchallengeably “cool”. So cool, that no politician or regulator will be in any hurry to slow or obstruct the roll-out of their services.
Never mind that the electric scooter hire service is leading to an unacceptable and ever-rising number of deaths and injuries around the world. Or, that the massive cost of this new transportation craze is being heaped upon the taxpayers of the countries in which the hire companies operate.
After all, who wants to be called old, cantankerous and not in the “now”?
So, here they are. Electric scooters. With more to come.
Be careful out there.