To a casual observer it may look like Maciej Karlowski is merely riding an electric scooter, but he’s also part of a transportation revolution.
“I bought it about a year ago. I use it to get around town, for errands, for work. I’m a photographer and I can carry my equipment on it and get where I need to go, and fast,” the 44-year-old Toronto resident says.
Electric scooters – e-scooters for short – are catching on worldwide as an innovative mode of personal transportation. They’re part of a larger category of electric-powered “micro-mobility” vehicles that range from sit-down scooters to two-wheeled electric-assist bikes, and even one-wheeled electric-powered skateboards, unicycles and longboards that users can put into a backpack when the ride is over.
“I have ridden all types of electric vehicles, and electric unicycles are the most intuitive. They’re tuned to your body – you lean forward to go, backwards to slow down or stop and sideways to turn,” says Lukas Tanasiuk, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Eevee’s in Vancouver, which sells one-wheelers to customers across Canada, with prices that range from $1,500 to $5,000.
“You are the throttle, and you are the brakes,” Mr. Tanasiuk says.
People buy these devices primarily for fun, but many people also buy them for transportation, he adds. The top-line models can go as fast as 70 kilometres an hour – which might earn you a speeding ticket – and Mr. Tanasiuk says that while his customers are primarily in their 20s and 30s, he has some patrons as old as 70.
“Electric unis can go up hills and withstand all kinds of weather conditions and they’re portable, so you never have to lock them – just pick them up and go inside,” he adds.
Other people who like innovation but are slightly less daring are drawn to two-wheeled scooters, says Barry Nisan, owner and sales director of Epic Cycles-Magnum Bikes Canada in Vaughan, Ont., and in Toronto’s west end.
“I’m hearing from many of our customers that they’re using electric scooters for convenience,” he says.
The two-wheeled versions are easy to use – you just kick with one foot, step on the platform and twist the throttle on the handgrip. Powered by a small, swappable lithium battery, e-scooters typically go less than 30 kilometres an hour (though some souped-up versions can go as fast as 90 km/h), and the brakes are operated like bicycle handbrakes.
E-scooters and unicycles don’t require a require a licence – and they’re also environmentally friendly. Yet there are bumps in the road when it comes to regulating them.
Bird Canada, one of the companies that operates fleets of rental e-scooters internationally, says that in 2021 it had some 200,000 scooter-users who logged more than 1.3 million trips in eight cities in Canada, the equivalent of 2.9 million kilometres of scooter travel.
Bird, its key competitor Lime and other smaller independent scooter-share companies like HFX e-Scooters, operate using phone-based apps. Customers download the app, provide their billing information, wave their phones at an e-scooter and go.
In many cities they can drop off their e-scooter, well, almost anywhere, and the company will pick them up, recharge the batteries and bill electronically.
“This micro-mobility revolution has taken cities by storm, but it has also taken cities by surprise. They can’t seem to keep up with regulations,” says Max Rastelli, owner of HFX e-Scooters in Halifax, which has up to 60 e-scooters on the road for hire in that city.
Mr. Rastelli programs his fleet of e-scooters with a geo-fence so that they can only be used within Halifax. When he started, he figured that e-scooting would be mostly for tourists, but people use them as commuter vehicles too, he says.
“We can tell that people are using them to get around because of where they leave them, not just at tourist sites. They’re everywhere.”
Nova Scotia introduced amendments to its Motor Vehicle Act in April to govern micro-mobility vehicles including e-scooters, giving municipalities permission to regulate them. Ontario launched a pilot program that lasts until the end of 2024 letting municipalities “choose where and how e-scooters may be used.”
“It’s still a grey area in terms of regulation. In Toronto e-scooters are technically illegal but people use them and as long as they’re respectful to others they’re usually not hassled,” Epic’s Mr. Nisan says.
Indeed, the City of Toronto’s website says that e-scooters “are not allowed to be operated, left, stored or parked on any public street in Toronto including bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, trails, paths, sidewalks or parks.”
Mr. Karlowski says he has never been hassled by police. “It’s not as if drivers in Toronto are all law-abiding; I have cycled in cities around the world and it’s one of the least bicycle [and e-scooter] friendly,” he says. Other cities in Ontario such as Windsor and Ottawa have allowed e-scooter pilot programs, and in British Columbia and Alberta, app-based scooter share programs are operating.
Lime, which operates in British Columbia, Alberta and many cities internationally, says that e-scooters have the potential to replace every car trip that is less than eight kilometres. Even when the battery-charging is factored in, an e-scooter trip emits 75 per cent less carbon dioxide than a comparable car trip, the company says.
Nate Wallace, program director, Clean Transportation for the advocacy group Environmental Defence, points to a 2019 study by researchers Elmira Berjisian and Alexander Bigazzi at the University of British Columbia showing that each user of an electric two-wheeler [bike or scooter] in the world would drive 2,000 fewer kilometres per year.
Mr. Rastelli say the three big challenges for regulators are to make rules that keep e-scooters off the sidewalks, make sure that people park them unobtrusively, and encourage or require riders to wear helmets.
Regulating e-scooter traffic requires a much bigger push for better bike lanes and pathways, says Cherise Burda, executive director, City Building at recently renamed Toronto Metropolitan University.
“We need more room for vehicles like e-scooters. We have too many people competing for little slivers of space on the roads, and we have bike lanes that end suddenly and then what do you do?” she says.
“I don’t even call them bike lanes any more, I call them micro-mobility lanes,” Mr. Rastelli says. E-scooter enthusiasm has endured all through the COVID-19 pandemic, and if anything, it’s picking up even more now, he says.
“The floodgates are opening for electric mobility,” he says. “Scooters are really cool, and they’re fun.”