Banning e-scooters: An admission of failure | Steve Zammit Lupi

It baffles me how in four years the most popular areas did not have a single parking hub for e-scooters. How can one expect to curtail abuse if official parking was never provided?

(File Photo)
(File Photo)

Pedestrians trying to walk on our pavements consider e-scooters a nuisance; an added burden, and rightly so since they are often left randomly blocking safe access or in front of people’s homes and garages. 

These issues are symptomatic of the elephant in the room. No one bats an eye at car parking spaces permissible on pavements in narrow streets, such as in Sliema and Valletta for instance, or the general unusable narrow pavements found nationwide. 

The absolute minimum space is given to pedestrians. Pedestrians ‘enjoy’ left-over scraps after the maximum desirable space is allocated to cars, be it for parking, on both sides if possible, extra lanes or large lane widths, or a mix-and-match of any of these. 

After Bolt introduced their rental e-scooter service in Malta in 2019, then Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia praised the company for their contribution in providing a micro-mobility option that would help the country in lowering emissions from our urban areas. He went on to say that such a service is vital and Bolt is leading by example within the private sector when considering transport is the biggest cause of emissions in Malta. 

Despite the government’s commitment to a low carbon emission economy, just three years later, Aaron Farrugia, now transport minister, announced that rental e-scooters will be banned in March 2024. He justified the ban by citing parking abuses and negligent riding. 

As an avid cyclist commuter, I feel that efforts to normalise and encourage cycling in Malta have moved forward at a snail’s pace over the past decade due to the lack of political will to seriously prioritise active mobility. Authorities once told me that since the number of cyclists in Malta is extremely low, factoring in cycling in road projects is simply not a political priority. Such reasoning is not only narrow-minded but fails to acknowledge the fact that the low uptake of cycling is directly attributed to the poor or lack of infrastructure and safety on our existing roads in the first place. 

With rental scooters, low numbers weren’t the case. Over 5,000 rental scooters are available on our roads and despite the lack of infrastructure people still use them. According to Bolt 20,000 daily trips take place at peak time during summer. The numbers are there and enough to justify the political attention to facilitate their use. 

It baffles me how in four years the most popular areas did not have a single parking hub for e-scooters. How can one expect to curtail abuse if official parking was never provided? 

I applaud San Ġwann Mayor Trevor Fenech for taking a proactive approach in his locality by creating parking hubs in 2022. These were welcomed by e-scooter users and used. In Ħaż-Żebbuġ, as a local councillor who works on mobility initiatives, I had reached out to Bolt to include our bicycle racks installed in the centre of our town on their scooter app, to be identified as parking hubs. Once marked, irresponsible parking in the centre of the town decreased drastically. 

With four months left for the ban to come into force, where are rental e-scooters in the meantime in the rest of Malta supposed to park in a correct manner? Bolt had already introduced measures via their user app to curtail parking abuse but the much-needed parking hubs never materialised as promised by Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia a year ago. 

What are we waiting for exactly? I am convinced this will solve the issue. The e-scooter question boils down to planning, or the lack of it, like any other issue in this country. 

The minister said he will encourage private e-scooter use. This is commendable, but just like rental e-scooters, users of private e-scooters and bicycles need safe infrastructure and parking hubs just the same. Once provided, it would automatically solve the issue for rental e-scooters too. 

What about multimodality? People need options to mix between modes of transport. It is all well and good to travel an entire journey by e-scooter. But it is equally important for people to have a choice by bridging the gaps and make up for the unreliable public transport service by hopping on a rental e-scooter nearby. 

Regarding enforcement, thousands of contraventions to car drivers are issued every year. In 2023, so far three pedestrians were killed and 204 pedestrians were injured in several accidents. Using the same yardstick does this merit a ban on cars? 

How can one of the EU's smallest countries be the first country to ban rental e-scooters? This in itself is contradictory and sends the wrong message on micro-mobility. 

Populist discourse often made reference to Paris as an example to follow with regard to banning e-scooters. However at least this was by a public referendum, although a rather questionable one. The Paris referendum resulted in 89% voting against e-scooters from a turnout of 8%. Unfortunately, we stop at that, conveniently picking and choosing, ignoring that Paris is also in the process of removing half of the entire city's on-street parking - it is a city-wide ban in favour of more green space and the addition of hundreds of kilometres of bicycle infrastructure and streets reserved for buses and taxis. 

In 2021, 15% of trips in the city were made by bicycle. Paris in 2023 has 19,000 rental bicycles with 390,000 subscribers in the city. 

A local ban is an admission of failure to what should have been a measure that is part of the sustainable mobility solution, the final blow after losing a cab-sharing company and the sole car-sharing and bicycle-sharing services available, in just the past year. 

Malta should be leaders in micro-mobility. The small size of our country is our greatest advantage. We forget Malta is just 27km long with a national average daily journey distance tipping at 5km, yet still building oversized junctions and roads on steroids for more cars. We need leadership that shakes the status quo. Banning a micro-mobility service is doing the opposite.

Steve Zammit Lupi is a local councillor and cyclist