Balancing the environment and safety in inner-city traffic seems to be a challenge. Now Mobility Minister Andreas Scheuer is allowing e-scooters to use German streets and is finally heralding a turnaround in traffic policy. Well, at least to a degree. Pedestrians are increasingly concerned about their own health, and a storm of protest is gathering among cyclists. Only motorists, who are dominating our inner city streets, seem to be relatively relaxed about the new rules for electric scooters. That’s because there’s plenty of room for them to move around safely.
The question of how to get from A to B in cities depends on where you live. In Berlin, a third of all journeys are made on foot, 28 percent by car, 27 percent by public transport and 13 percent by bicycle. In Oyten near Bremen, a town with a population of 16,000, the car dominates with 54 percent, while public transport does not play any role at all, with a similar percentage of people traveling by bike and on foot as in the capital.
Either way, one thing is certain: Germany is a nation of motorists. It’s quite amazing because you wonder where all the cars come from or want to go, but still: In 2018, the number of passenger cars again grew by 600,000 to 47.1 million, and the total number of motor vehicles even reached an incredible 65 million. It won’t be long and we’ll have more vehicles than people in Germany.
E-scooter road approval: claustrophobia is growing
But this also means that the space available on the streets will be getting ever more limited. Drivers can feel it in traffic jams. Life is becoming increasingly risky for cyclists and pedestrians, especially in large cities. And to add a new dimension to the daring challenges in road traffic, the “ultra-small electric vehicles” are now in the starting blocks. This term refers to the incredibly practical e-scooters. The original plan was as follows: The small electric scooters were supposed to be free to use either on sidewalks (up to 12 km/h) or bicycle lanes or streets (for scooters up to 20 km/h). Apart from that, regulations are supposed to be very limited: a liability insurance is required, the minimum age is 12, or 14 years for the faster scooters. No obligation to wear helmets, no moped-like test certificate or similar.
All this – coupled with the relatively low price and practical mobility services, such as the “Scooter to go” bookable via app – will probably ensure that the snappy little things will quickly establish themselves. Hopefully. Because just like pedelecs or rental bicycles, electric scooters could gradually change the streetscape in major cities. Away from the car, because road space belongs to everyone who wants to be mobile. But this is something we’ll have (re-)learn first – after decades of inner city street development dominated by the car.
A divided nation of drivers
Twenty kilometers per hour is a fairly high speed for such a small vehicle when the e-scooter becomes part of the flow of traffic on streets or bicycle lanes. And 12 km/h is a comparatively high speed on sidewalks. The idea of being able to use slower e-scooters on sidewalks now is off the table. Resistance from road safety organizations, associations for the blind and disabled, insurers and the pedestrian lobby took care of that.
The entire debate shows, however, that the balance between the concern for environmental protection and safety must not be lost. But it is difficult to maintain this balance. If you ask the people in Germany, the (car) nation is thoroughly divided – as can be seen in various surveys conducted by the opinion research institute Civey, among others on behalf of TÜV Rheinland in April 2019. In general, one third of the population in Germany welcomes the approval of e-scooters. Just under 45 percent of the respondents are opposed to approval, and around 20 percent are undecided. Motorists (with 46% opposing) are somewhat more skeptical than cyclists (42%), women had clearly more negative stance than men (with 47% vs. 39% opposing), and – not surprisingly – older people over 50 years of age at more than 45% are more opposed to approval than those under 30 years of age, of whom just 25% oppose approval. Younger people just have more fun using scooters.
The general question of whether electric scooters should be allowed on sidewalks at speeds of up to 12 km/h was also clearly rejected in the surveys. A total of 59 percent of all respondents rejected the use of sidewalks, a good 32 percent were in favor. Opposition to sidewalk use for scooters among older people and among women was even higher than for e-scooter street approval in general.
Caution may seem justified in principle, especially when you look at accident figures in other countries such as Israel. However, I urge everyone to be objective when analyzing the causes of accidents. If, as happened in Berlin in April, an e-scooter driver crosses the pedestrian light at red and is hit, this has nothing to do with the vehicle, but much to do with the negligent disregard of traffic rules. It’s something you learn as early as in kindergarten: red says stop, green says go.
Be bold, not careless
We should try the large-scale nationwide test with Andi Scheuer and the e-scooters. Bold experiments are required to transform traffic step by step. Of course, electric scooters alone do not solve any traffic problems. Of course, boldness must not turn into exuberance or carelessness. But too much regulatory frenzy could prevent innovative means of transport from making it to the streets at all.
The more diverse the potential means of transport, the more diverse the streetscape becomes. Moving away from motorized monoculture. But one thing above all is urgently needed for the streetscape in our cities to change: We must say goodbye to ego-based convenience and an ego-first-mentality, which views section 1 of the Road Traffic Regulation as an annoying recommendation for others – especially when one is sitting pretty in an SUV that is wonderfully large and safe (at least for me). Section one of the Road Traffic Regulation says: “Participation in road traffic requires constant caution and mutual respect.” And it continues as follows: “Any person participating in traffic shall conduct themselves in such a way that no one else is harmed, endangered or, more than is unavoidable under the circumstances, impeded or inconvenienced.” Let’s just try to take this to heart – whether at the wheel of a 40-tonne truck, in an SUV, as a cyclist, pedestrian or on our newly registered ultra-small electric vehicle.