Urban Mobility

Is the UK moving towards low carbon urban mobility solutions?

Published on 22nd Nov 2022

The UK government has indicated that it may legislate to ensure e-scooters sold in the UK meet certain safety standards, opening the path for future regularisation of their legal status.

Electric charging points for cars

E-scooters could support the transition to low-carbon smart cities by reducing reliance on the car. A new legal category of low speed, zero-emission vehicles could soon be recognised by UK law. Electric scooters have become a common sight in British cities, despite the current law limiting their usage. 

What could this development tell us about urban mobility and the transition to low-carbon transport in cities?

Why does urban mobility matter?

Domestic transport produces around one quarter of all UK carbon emissions (27% in 2019); more than any other source. The Department for Transport has predicted that road traffic will grow 22% from 2015 to 2035, with much of the growth in urban areas. If the UK is going to achieve its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the way people travel within its cities is likely to have to change, including a sharp reduction in private car usage. 

Tackling air pollution is also an important priority for the UK, as set out in 2019’s Clean Air Strategy which aims to reduce particulate matter emissions 46% by 2030. Air pollution has previously been cited as the biggest environmental risk to public health in Europe, causing 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Active forms of travel including walking, cycling and scooting form part of the solution, alongside improved public transport systems. Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is also important, providing app-based travel across transport modes. For example, an individual might use MaaS to plan and book a journey using a train, bus and rental e-scooter to get to the other side of a city. 

The transition to electric cars and other vehicles will play an important role in reducing transport-related carbon emissions and air pollution, but cities will require a more radical approach to transport than switching one type of car for another. E-scooters could be one element of the changes required to make low-carbon cities a reality.

Current restrictions on e-scooters

Scooters fitted with a battery and motor are freely sold in the UK, but they should only be used within an approved rental scheme or on private land. E-scooters are classed as motor vehicles under the Road Traffic Act 1988, meaning riders need to have a licence, insurance and tax. Insurance is not currently available for e-scooters, meaning the vehicle could be seized by police (but this law is not rigorously enforced). 

E-scooter rental trial schemes have been running in over 30 areas in England, with speed restricted to 15.5mph and safety features such as automatic lights. To use one of these trial e-scooters, riders are required to hold a driving licence. The e-scooter trials are being extended until 30 November 2022 to allow for a slower start due to the pandemic. Data from the trials will be evaluated on their conclusion to determine the next steps.

If the trial results indicate that the legal use of e-scooters should be expanded, the government would need to remove legal obstacles to this. This is likely to involve a reclassification of e-scooters to remove the requirement for insurance, as well as prohibiting the sale of e-scooters without safety restrictions. 

E-scooters could become even more of a fixture on our streets, providing a convenient and low-energy way to complete the first and last mile of a journey. Policymakers will need to address issues such as public safety and risks to other road users. For example, irresponsible use of e-scooters could pose particular risks to vulnerable groups such as older people and disabled people.

Urban mobility in a smart city

Smart cities aim to use information and communication technology to optimise functionality, sustainability, productivity and quality of life. Data is used to assist with everything from controlling traffic flow by optimising traffic lights to helping drivers find available parking spaces and using reporting systems to address issues such as leaking pipes and potholes. The gathering of data enables authorities and companies to make informed decisions about how to manage assets and infrastructure.

Urban mobility in smart cities is about enabling the efficient flow of people and goods through a city, with minimal pollution, carbon emissions and congestion. This requires an approach to city planning that delivers effective and secure public transport systems, integrated with MaaS platforms. 

For smart cities to function as intended, urban policies must embed standards relating to issues such as air quality, congestion and quality of life. The system should be flexible and adaptable, providing for adjustment to developments in technology, for example autonomous cars. Rigorous cybersecurity will be required to protect user data and to prevent cyber-attacks disrupting urban travel networks.

Key features of urban mobility in a smart city might include, development of all-electric delivery vehicles as well as e-cargo delivery bikes. Delivery drones could be used to transport goods. Zero-pollution buses fuelled by hydrogen may become commonplace, as recently introduced in London. We are also likely to see increased use of connectivity between vehicles and infrastructure, with smarter use of the resulting datasets allowing for better congestion management in cities and suburbs by transport authorities.

Legal challenges for urban mobility solutions

Some examples of the challenges that urban mobility can present include:

  • Contractual complexity: MaaS can be contractually complex, with multiple parties involved including a transport operator and platform provider. This can cause challenges in establishing liability around problems such as data sharing, liability for delays and provision of accurate information to customers.
  • Data sharing: Consideration of which regulations apply to the sharing and use of data, both personal and non-personal, in this environment. For example, data shared between vehicles and traffic infrastructure, or with transport authorities, insurers and vehicle manufacturers. (You can read more about these issues in Osborne Clarke’s report on data-driven business models).
  • Procurement issues: MaaS may be run by private companies, operated by the public sector or through a public-private partnership, with additional companies running the smart mobility ecosystems. The underlying arrangements raise complex issues around competition law and contractual liability. 
  • Financing structures: Innovative financing structures can enable the roll-out of low carbon fleets or infrastructure.
  • Liability challenges: The pioneering technology in automated transport systems and autonomous vehicles means there is a lack of precedent in establishing liability where the vehicle manufacturer, system designer, infrastructure operator or maintenance of the vehicle could all play a role. 
  • Employment law: A growth in the use of gig economy structures for urban mobility, for example in last-mile delivery or ride-hailing apps could increase disputes around employment status and the rights of workers.
  • Adaptability: Given the pace of regulatory change in smart mobility, transit providers, platform and app developers, transport authorities and others may find it challenging to anticipate and adapt to likely changes, for example in the use and exploitation of transport data.

Osborne Clarke’s  Economist Impact report examines some of the legal challenges and opportunities presented by the emergence of smart cities. It identifies 12 key technologies that can help cities achieve carbon-reduction targets while creating jobs, lowering energy costs and improving overall quality of life. 

Osborne Clarke has helped clients working in the urban mobility space on issues including: automotive; logistics; defence, security and aerospace; e-mobility; and rail and bus. If you would like to discuss any issues raised in this Insight, please contact the authors or your usual Osborne Clarke contact.  


* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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