The e-scooter ban is a kneejerk reaction

The government’s action, when opting for an outright ban on rental e-scooters, is typical of how authorities under pressure react when dealing with disruptive technology  – in this case a disruptive mode of transport

The debate surrounding e-scooters is pretty much an intergenerational one: young people find them a convenient alternative to get around, whether for work or pleasure; and older people loathe them because of the potential danger they pose to pedestrians and the inconvenience they cause when parked haphazardly. 

Cycling and environmental advocates would argue in favour of a policy that facilitates the use of e-scooters since they provide an alternative and cleaner means of personalised transport to the private car. On the other hand, local council mayors have been complaining over the inconvenience caused to elderly people and garage owners by scooters abandoned by irresponsible riders on sidewalks and pretty much everywhere else. 

Both sides have valid arguments. E-scooters provide a very convenient mode of intra-city travel. For foreign workers living and working in the Msida-Gżira-Sliema-St Julian’s-Swieqi conurbation, e-scooters are a perfect way of getting around without getting stuck in traffic congestion. They are also a convenient mode of travel within larger localities. 

But within this context the plight of pedestrians cannot be ignored, especially those with mobility challenges. Getting hit by an e-scooter is not only an unpleasant experience but can have very serious consequences for some people. Finding a scooter blocking your garage door, or obstructing the pavement is also a big inconvenience, especially if this happens every couple of metres. 

The government tried walking a tight rope by issuing regulations to control how scooters are used and where they can be driven but as always, the good intentions were scuppered by a lack of proper enforcement. 

In its latest act, the government has gone for an outright ban on rental e-scooters that will start from March next year. The ban specifically targets rental scooters, which means people who purchase their own will still be able to use them. 

It is clear that the problem lies with the irresponsible use of rental scooters because riders have little interest to take care of them once they have finished using them. 

The proliferation of rental scooters and the inability to enforce how these are used and where they can be parked has now led to what can only be termed as a kneejerk reaction. The government’s action is typical of how authorities under pressure react when dealing with disruptive technology – in this case a disruptive mode of transport. 

The outright ban is likely to enjoy widespread popular support, especially in the Sliema-St Julian’s area, where elderly residents have long been raising concerns on irresponsible scooter use. Government’s decision signals it has finally heard their plight. 

But the problem with the draconian decision is that it leaves open the question whether all avenues to ensure proper enforcement have been explored. 

Admittedly, enforcement is not easy when it comes to micro mobility and it would be irrational to expect the authorities to be present in every nook and cranny to police scooter riders. But there are technological means to do so. 

Geofencing can be used to confine the use and parking of e-scooters to certain roads and areas. Indeed, it has been in use and in certain localities riders could not park anywhere they wanted otherwise the operator would keep charging money. 

The question is, why wasn’t a system of mandatory geofencing, determined by the transport authority in consultation with local councils, not imposed on the e-scooter operators? Are there other loopholes that allow riders to subvert the system even if geofencing is in place? And if so, aren’t there technological solutions to close these loopholes? 

The draconian decision suggests the authorities took the easy way out. 

But there is also the wider issue of improper road infrastructure. The dearth of dedicated bike lanes, some of which connect to nowhere, means that alternative modes of transport such as scooters and bicycles end up being a safety concern for pedestrians. Pedestrian safety is not something that can be easily brushed aside, especially in localities where the population is largely elderly. 

It is also true that most roads and pavements are not wide enough to accommodate dedicated bike lanes. In this sense, the greatest problem with scooters is that they compete for limited pavement space with pedestrians. Indeed, most pavements in urban areas allow two or maybe three people to walk side by side, and taking up physical road space would practically mean removing on street parking. 

Malta has a car-centred culture, which will not go away anytime soon. Any attempt to remove on street parking has to be pre-empted by the construction of urban underground multi-storey car parks, otherwise it will breed resistance. 

But this does not mean the authorities should not explore viable alternative avenues where cars, e-scooters, bicycles and pedestrians can co-exist. Through pilot projects people may also start seeing benefits in terms of more trees, larger pavements and dedicated lanes for alternative modes of transport. 

A concerted investment to improve pavements with government actively financing local councils, would also be a welcome move after years of neglect. 

Indeed, in some areas elevated dedicated bicycles tracks can be explored, while the seafront from Pietà all the way to St Julian’s can be redesigned in some place to accommodate a continuous bike lane without compromising parking and space where pedestrians can walk safely. It could also be extended to Valletta. 

Some of the internal roads within towns and villages can also be identified as cycle routes for shared road space with cars. These routes must have clear markings indicating that cars have to slow down and prioritise bicycles and e-scooters. 

Adopting a strategy that encourages alternative modes of transport is not easy in a densely-populated country like Malta. 

Solutions have to be practical and adapted to local realities. It is useless looking at what other European cities with large boulevards do since Malta is a city functioning as a country with all necessities crammed into But doing nothing is not an option either and every effort must be made to encourage alternative and clean transport means.