Last to the party. Will Ireland finally join the e-scooter club?

16 July 2020

Policy Backdrop

Ireland’s road traffic laws, which govern the definition of mechanically propelled vehicles (MPVs), date back to the 1960s and are clearly not fit for the 21st century. Due to the persistent efforts by a small number of parliamentarians – most notably the former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock – the issue of e-scooters in Ireland became a national issue in 2018.

As a result of the pressure brought about by parliamentarians and market participants, former Minister for Transport Shane Ross ordered the Road Safety Authority (RSA) to examine how e-scooters were treated elsewhere. The report, which was followed by a somewhat favourable recommendation from the RSA advocating further exploration of the issue, prompted Ross to subsequently announce a Public Consultation on Powered Personal Transporters. Safety both for e-scooter riders and other road users has been cited by officials as the reason for Ireland’s approach to micro-mobility, which remains conservative. Yet, talk to any cyclist in Dublin and they’ll very quickly tell you just how dangerous even the shortest of journeys in the capital can be.

As policymakers became aware of the benefits of e-scooters, both in terms of improving sustainability and as an immediate solution to growing urban congestion in our cities, the issue received greater prominence. Fianna Fáil (FF) deputies John Lahart and Marc MacSharry brought forward a Private Members’ Bill which sought to advance the issue by legislative means. The Bill was an interesting blueprint for how e-scooters could eventually operate in Ireland. A ban on riding e-scooters on pavements and speed restrictions are both likely to be features of any change in primary legislation although many TDs, Senators and Councillors hold different opinions on key issues such as mandatory helmets, insurance, the use of e-scooters in cycle lanes, virtual parking etc.

Lack of Political Will

In fairness to senior officials in the Department of Transport and regulatory bodies such as the National Transport Authority (NTA), there has been a sense until now that engagement with e-scooter providers was akin to putting the cart before the horse. The political will to drive legislative change didn’t exist and Minister Ross, knowing an election was around the corner, was happy to kick it to touch.

That being said, there is a certain degree of resistance to the general idea of e-scooters and other forms of micro-mobility at both national and local government. We know that change in Ireland can sometimes be painfully incremental, but with the right public affairs strategy and effective execution, substantial progress can be made.

The New Normal

COVID-19 has caused many of us to hit the reset button in how we live our day-to-day lives. It has also given us the space to reflect on what truly matters. Many of us have paused to take greater appreciation of our friends and families, sustainability and our impact on the environment as well as the benefits which flexible working can bring to our everyday lives. 

While our lives seem to have been turned upside down in recent months, the reality is that COVID-19 has brought forward many profound changes that were already underway. Transport is no different. Many of our cities are simply at capacity. Increasing congestion and the pressures on the public transport system due to social distancing requirements has been the bolt that has elevated the issue of e-scooter legislation. Dublin is the 6th most congested city in Europe and the 17th worst in the world. Anyone who lives and works in the cities of Cork, Galway or Limerick will be all too familiar with how traffic grinds everything to a halt. These cities and their residents are crying out for change.

Transport trends in Dublin (pre COVID-19)

  • 40 per cent of trips are by car, walking is the next most used form of transport (33 per cent of all trips)
  • Almost 40 per cent of trips to Dublin City are for work/business
  • The highest proportion of trips take between 15-29 minutes, less than one quarter of trips take between 30-44 mins
  • A third of trips are 1-3 km long, trips between 3-5km and 5-10km account for a further 20 per cent each of all trips taken
  • The majority of all trips taken by residents in Dublin City are less than 5km and 85 per cent are less than 10km
  • 45 per cent of residents spent less than 30 minutes travelling to work, while 36 per cent spent 31-60 minutes commuting

Source: NTA National Household Transport Survey 2017

While the amount of people working remotely will be much higher in future than was the case before COVID-19, public health concerns regarding the use of public transport and capacity issues is already seeing more people opt to use private vehicles. When you consider that over 50 per cent of journeys in Dublin city are less than 5km in distance, the case for e-scooters is obvious. But it would be a mistake to think e-scooters are a standalone mode of transport. They have been most effective in European cities when integrated with the existing public transport system. The goal for policymakers in our cities and towns should be to integrate e-scooters with rail, tram and bus services.

A New Government

The commitment in the programme for government to legislate for e-scooters is welcome. Anyone who lives and works in our major cities knows of the dire need for greater investment in cycling and walking infrastructure. The commitment in the programme for government to allocate €360 million per year for walking and cycling is encouraging and the provision of new cycling infrastructure will give more road users the comfort of using bicycles, e-bikes and yes, e-scooters too. The advent of the Green Party in government is the launchpad for the transformative investment in public transport infrastructure that has been absent for some time.

So, how likely is it we will see legislative change in Ireland for e-scooters?

Most administrations will be pleased to see two thirds of their programme for government implemented before they leave office. The Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Green Party programme for government is by far the lengthiest and most ambitious in the history of the State.

E-scooter operators are right to be encouraged that Eamon Ryan, the leader of the Green Party, will be primarily responsible for transport policy. However, his new Department is perhaps the most challenging of all with Climate Action and Communication Networks also under his brief. The success of the party’s time in government will be largely defined by its ability to make substantial progress in achieving a reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions of at least seven per cent per annum. Enter e-scooters.

The risk though for e-scooter companies and other micro-mobility campaigners is that the promise of legislating for e-scooters could get lost in Ryan’s heavy legislative agenda and as a result, Ireland would remain an outlier compared to other EU countries.

Strategic engagement and effective relationship building with the key interlocutors involved in transport policy – at national and local level – will be fundamental as to whether Ireland finally arrives to the party.

To understand how Vulcan can support and advance your public affairs objectives in Ireland or at EU level, get in touch with our Account Director, Keith Hoare.