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a funky geometric blue and yellow background with an orange escooter outlined in green in the centre
E-scooters: their past, present, and bright (??) future. (Image: Shanti Mathias/Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 24, 2023

Transport saviour or ‘death machine’? The state of the e-scooter in Aotearoa

a funky geometric blue and yellow background with an orange escooter outlined in green in the centre
E-scooters: their past, present, and bright (??) future. (Image: Shanti Mathias/Tina Tiller)

What does bringing a new form of transport to New Zealand mean? Shanti Mathias dives deep into the regulations, controversies and future possibilities of electric scooters.

Emma Maguire thinks she might be one of the top for-hire e-scooter users in the Wellington region. She scooters up the hill to work. She scooters to the train station. Sometimes she goes out to Lyall Bay just so she can speed along the flat, feeling the wind in her hair, water stretching out beyond, the blue scuffed by the wind. 

But while Maguire may be a particularly frequent user, she’s far from alone. There are thousands of e-scooters in New Zealand. They started appearing in 2018, following big e-scooter drops in the US from companies like Bird and Lime. Nearly five years later, scooters have become an accepted part of urban geography, chunky and upright forms with colourful branding perched on pavements, bearing a group of giggling teenagers around a waterfront, a rush of wind behind you on the footpath, or relied on when you really need to get to the train that leaves only once an hour. But have these electric velocipedes really transformed how we move, and will they stick around? 

E-scooters were launched in New Zealand in October 2018. While bigger urban centres like Auckland and Christchurch were the locations of the initial rollout, they’re now widespread, from Palmerston North to Waimakariri. They’re also popular: scooter company Beam’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand, Tom Cooper, says that over five million kilometres have been ridden on the company’s vehicles. According to Beam’s customer research, at least 50% of those trips were for commuting, and 45% of trips replace a car journey. “It’s become well and truly embedded in people’s lives,” he says. 

“With rising congestion in New Zealand and the desire to reduce carbon emissions, we thought [e-scooters] were a no-brainer,” says Jacksen Love, co-founder of Flamingo, New Zealand’s first locally-based e-scooter provider. Love is happily car free, and uses e-scooters for many of his short trips around Wellington. 

a white man in his early thirties wearing a puffa jacket stands in front of a colourful wall holding an escooter that is pink
Jacksen Love, Flamingo founder – and fan of car-free transport (Photo: Supplied)

When they first landed in Aotearoa, there was significant concern about e-scooters’ association with injury. Poorly maintained for-hire scooters had brakes that failed; as helmets weren’t required, there were head injuries too. An ACC blogpost in 2021 urged caution while riding e-scooters, saying many injuries could be avoided by considerate usage. Data provided to The Spinoff from ACC shows that injuries from e-scooters (including privately owned e-scooters) include concussions, bruises and fractures; in 2021, the average claim cost for e-scooter injuries was $2,400. Court action last year found that Waka Kotahi had no way to tell how dangerous e-scooters really were. 

While injuries are concerning, the overall trend is fewer over time, as e-scooter riders become more likely to be consistent users, rather than punters. “E-scooters aren’t the death machines people think they are,” says Tim Welch, a senior lecturer specialising in transport at the University of Auckland’s school of architecture and planning. Part of the reason people are alarmed about injuries on the electrified two-wheelers is the novelty, while injuries and deaths caused by car accidents are well-established and normalised – not to mention the downstream impacts of fossil fuel transport, like the thousands who die prematurely because of air pollution from cars.

the grey mosaic of tiles with a black office/retail building behind and some very neatly parked orange neon Neron scooters
Neuron scooters neatly parked at Christchurch’s Riverside Market (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

As for-hire e-scooters have become normal across Aotearoa, they’ve also become stringently regulated – a stipulation of many councils, which give scooter operators a licence to operate for a fixed period of time. They have speed restrictions, no more than 25km/h, zones where they aren’t allowed to be parked, and boundaries where they’re not allowed to be ridden – all to increase safety and decrease public resentment. Licence conditions from city councils also require scooter operators to fund public safety campaigns. “Some of the regulation is on the high end,” acknowledges Love, “but I think the level of regulation is pretty bang on at the moment.”

That said, there are some downsides to these regulations. Areas where scooters aren’t allowed to go are “geo-fenced”; scooters will stop automatically if they hit the invisible boundary. While this effectively keeps fast scooters from areas full of pedestrians like Wellington’s Victoria University campus, it can be dangerous if the geolocation malfunctions and the scooter comes to a sudden stop in a legal area – an experience Maguire has had multiple times. “It can be challenging navigating the city where it’s been geofenced off,” she says. She also gets frustrated with scooters bleating “no-parking zone” when that information could easily be provided on an app

While these regulations apply to colourful Lime, Flamingo and Beam scooters, privately owned e-scooters are off the hook. There are no rules about where they can be parked, how fast they can go, and where they can be ridden. “That can introduce some bad behaviour and put people in unsafe positions,” says Welch. Because privately owned e-scooters don’t need a registration or licence, it’s not even clear how many of them there are, although Christchurch City Council transport operations manager Stephen Wright told The Spinoff it’s estimated about a third of e-scooter rides in Christchurch are on shared, hired scooters, and two-thirds are on private scooters.

five e scooters arranged in formation on a blue background
Lime versus Wave versus Flamingo versus Jump versus Beam – some of the e-scooters operating in New Zealand in 2019 (Image: The Spinoff)

For people who are using scooters regularly, owning one can be a better deal. Maguire says that she’d love to have a personal scooter – she currently pays up to $40 a week for scootering – but to get one with the heft to get up Wellington’s hills is out of her price range. “I don’t have two or three grand on hand very often, so hiring is easier for the time being.” 

While scooters can be quick and efficient, and don’t produce exhaust, price may be a barrier to widespread adoption. Costs start at $1 to unlock a scooter, then are about 50c per minute, though rates vary, and some services offer packages for frequent riders that are a better deal. 

“I think scooters are becoming an important part of the non-car movement,” Welch says. “If it were up to me the government would provide an option for low-cost access to e-scooters and e-bikes – it’s a way to help people who don’t own a bike and aren’t using a car, to decrease congestion to public transport.” Welch is particularly taken with scooters as a “last mile” option, used in conjunction with public transport – to speed to the train station when you’re running late, or get from the bus stop to your friend’s house up the hill. For reducing congestion, it’s definitely a compelling alternative to short trips in cars

Two young people with beige jeans and white and pink flamingo helmets zip along on pink flamingo scooters with some plants in the background
A chief attraction of e-scooters? They’re just pretty fun (Photo: Supplied by Flamingo)

“I’m not convinced e-scooters are filling a lot of gaps in the wider transport system,” says Paris Marx, a technology critic and author of the book The Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transport. “They seem to benefit tourists and young people most – they’re a leisure activity, used for fun.” A Canadian, Marx was surprised to discover how popular e-scooters are in New Zealand. They particularly object to how e-scooters commodify public space. “It’s a business model that looks at that public space at the side of the road, and says we’ll take up some of that space for private services we’re going to put there.”

Welch, meanwhile, points out that there are lots of businesses operating in the blurry space between public and private space – cafes that put chairs and tables out on the footpath, businesses that slap advertising stickers on the road, not to mention carparks for public vehicles, occupying valuable space built and maintained by councils and the government. “Nearly every parked car you see in a city is parked there for free,” he says. Moreover, e-scooters companies often do pay councils fees for their use of space. Some councils have set up designated areas for rented e-scooters to be parked, with firm guidelines, like Auckland’s Rental Micromobility Code of Practice, governing where scooters can be. 

Scooter companies are also eager to point out that they work hard to make users behave better. Beam, for instance, makes users watch a pre-trip safety briefing to make sure they know how to ride and will park appropriately before they can unlock the vehicle, and they also incentivise riders with free credits for doing safety quizzes. It’s also standard practice to have to photograph the vehicle at the end of your ride to show it was parked properly. 

it's nightime and a lime e-scooter lies, fetchingly on its side, blocking part of the footpath
Even a properly parked e-scooter can easily topple over and block a footpath, as seen here in Mount Albert, Auckland (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

The parking piece is important, because badly parked scooters can make footpaths much harder to use for people with mobility impairments. For that reason, the devices have been strongly criticised by disabled people. Scooters that have been parked badly or knocked over are obstructive, and people who are moving more slowly can’t get out of the way of fast-moving travellers on footpaths. Designated parking zones for scooters can help, but of course the convenience of for-hire scooters requires is that they will be nearby – perhaps askew on a footpath – when you want them.

At the same time, scooters can also be good for accessibility: a way to move quickly for people who don’t live near public transport stops, relatively comfortable and safe for non-drivers and potentially useful for those who can’t walk far or fast. Flamingo offers a discount to SuperGold Card holders, as well as those with Community Services Cards and students. “Our typical rider is between 18 to 35, but we get requests surprisingly often for the SuperGold discount,” Love says. “And at our in-person safety events, older people are often the ones who want to be shown how to use a scooter first hand.”

While scooters are popular, especially with younger people in urban areas and people who don’t drive cars, they also occupy an awkward in-between space – not bikes, but two wheeled; not pedestrians, but used on footpaths; not public transport, but shared between different users with different priorities. 

Tim Welch welcomes concessions like the scooter parking zones, or illustrations of scooters on shared path signage, validating this mode of transport. He’d like to see more infrastructure to make scooting safer. For instance, scooters’ unique legal position mean they’re allowed on shared paths, streets, and footpaths, but not bike lanes, which are reserved exclusively for bikes. “Streets can be risky for someone on a scooter – we haven’t got it quite right where we think scooters should be,” Welch says. New Zealand, often fiercely car-dependent, needs compelling alternative forms of transport; e-scooters could be a piece of that, but cities need to continue to plan for it – for instance by giving scooter operators more certainty with longer licence periods. 

Love, too, would appreciate updates to the licensing process. He sees that the moves towards making New Zealand streets safer and more effective for non-car transport will often benefit scooters too. “Dropping the speed limit to 30km an hour, or having more dedicated areas for riding – maybe alongside bikes – would be good,” he says. 

a lime scooter on a footpath with some people in the background. it's in pieces
A broken Lime electric scooter lays on a footpath. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A half-decade of scooters in Aotearoa has seen a wide variety of models on the streets. Initial models were more flimsy, and didn’t have two brakes. At first, not every scooter came with a helmet – and helmet use on scooters still isn’t mandated. There are thousands of scooters around the country, but very few of those were the ones that initially launched at the end of 2018. Heavily used – Beam says their average scooter gets ridden four times a day – the vehicles are often replaced (Beam’s latest has the celestial title “Saturn 5”). So what happens to all the scooters whose time is up? 

Welch, the urban planning lecturer, sees waste as a consistent challenge for companies offering hired vehicles. “The end of a scooter’s life can be a big problem – you see photos of them piled in landfills in the US.” Jump scooters, which were available in New Zealand in 2019 before being absorbed by Lime, were recycled after only six months; overseas, thousands of e-scooters and e-bikes have been thrown away

“When we introduce a new scooter, we relocate the old scooters, which extends their life,” says Love. Some older scooters are repaired and sold for the private market; others can be recycled, so all that metal and the valuable materials in the batteries aren’t wasted. Waste is less than 4% of Flamingo’s operational emissions. “Every part is reused or upcycled – we only have to throw out a small amount of rubber on the scooter,” Love says. 

grey glassy water surface and a sad looking purple Beam escooter lying askew underwater
In Wellington harbour, a scooter sits in the drink (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Less redeemable are the scooters that end up in bushes, chucked into streams and down hillsides. “If they’ve been in salt water, there’s not much that can be salvaged – the corrosion starts nearly immediately,” Love says. It frustrates him, although they have strategies for dealing with damaged scooters: hooks to grapple the vehicles off the harbour floor, a contract with marine clean-up organisation Ghost Divers NZ if the scooter is especially deep, and lots of practice at retrieving the heavy machines from awkward places. While Wellington City Council imposes a fine of $371 for scooters the city has to retrieve, they’ve never had to hand one out to any company. 

“We do a dedicated clearance of the waterfront [in Wellington] to ensure it doesn’t happen,” says Love. With the help of CCTV footage and Flamingo’s own records, they try to identify the culprits, who often end up on a payment plan to contribute to the cost of the lost vehicle. “It’s something that people think is funny after a few drinks, then we talk to them and they say ‘fuck, that was so stupid,’” Love says. They restrict the timings of when scooters are available in some areas, which varies between the short days of winter and the more scooter-friendly summer evenings. 

In four-and-a-half years, e-scooters have ceased to be a novelty; their start-up glitz and bright branding has yielded to an expectation that they will be an option for some people in some places. In short, they’ve become more normal. But maybe their moment is still coming. I ask Love what he thinks scootering might look like five years into the future. “We’re out of the trial stage where scooters are a polarising topic,” he says. “I’d like to use more AI technology to detect if scooters are on a street or a footpath, to check they’re properly parked, to detect pedestrians and automatically slow down,” he says. He’d also like a wider range of scooters to be available: his company is looking into acquiring scooters with seats, for people who don’t want to stand up for long periods of time. 

And while scooters are more accepted now, the aspect that excites Love most is the diversity of people who use them: students and lawyers, builders and grandmothers, teenagers and parents. The for-hire model offers a fun alternative for people from many walks of life to try scooting instead. “Whenever someone tries an electric scooter or bike, it’s a win for the overall mission of getting people out of cars and onto more environmentally friendly forms of transport.”

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