An e-scooter rider takes advantage of new cycle lane, installed near to Croydon College, south London
Credit: Richard Baker/Getty Images
When Parris, 27, bought her first e-scooter from a friend this summer, her boyfriend Antony was sceptical. "I was worried she wouldn’t be safe riding around on her own," he says.
But as they push their electric scooters between the few shops still open on Croydon’s high street, he admits he has become a convert. "Antony’s a techie so he’s been buying all these gadgets," grins Parris, listing their new e-scooter accessories.
E-scooter trade in the south London borough is booming, even though it remains illegal to ride them on public roads, cycle ways or pavements.
This hasn’t stopped the borough’s younger residents investing in the technology. At any time of day, e-scooters can be seen silently speeding down Croydon’s pedestrianised high street, past the preachers, the Christmas lights and the shops shuttered by the latest national restrictions.
While most are unlikely to associate Croydon with the vanguard of new technology, the pandemic has helped the capital’s youngest borough transform into an unplanned test bed for the new form of transport.
And the enthusiasm here is infectious. The more people see them, the more they want one. "I would love one!" one woman says through her mask.
Emerging out of East Croydon station, e-scooting commuters glide past the half-finished high rises and in the after-school-rush, parents and children ride together, careering down the main drag connecting Croydon to the rest of the capital.
The sudden interest in e-scooters in Croydon has out-paced regulation, threatening to overshadow their environmental benefits and creating a confusing situation for riders and the pedestrians trying to jump out their way.
Shops can sell them with a disclaimer they can be ridden only on privately-owned land – not something to which the average Croydon resident has easy access.
"Basically, I think it’s a nice idea to have a scooter but unfortunately if you let people do what they like it doesn’t work," says Rob Carter, 68, who is retired. "You do need some sort of regulation I think, otherwise the whole thing will get out of hand."
He says he sees dozens of e-scooters "buzzing about" when he picks his wife up every evening from East Croydon station. "They’re a bit like bike riders: you get good ones and you get stupid ones."
Yet even as e-scooters remain unregulated, the pandemic has created an irresistible pull.
Between September and October this year, retailer Halfords reported a 450pc increase in people buying e-scooters, with the epicentre of sales this year taking place in south London.
Those who can’t or won’t stay-home as per government guidelines are attracted to a mode of transport that enables them to out-pace crawling queues of traffic without breaking a sweat or having to stand shoulder to shoulder with other masked travellers on public transport.
Eating his lunch on a bench on the high-street, Moroni, 23, says he wanted an e-scooter for ages but only finally bought one last week from Facebook Marketplace, where most models retail for between £200 and £300.
Halfords top areas for e-scooter sales
He didn’t want to get the bus to and from work, partly because of the pandemic. But also "I didn’t want to wait in the cold for a bus anymore," he says. "And I wanted to save the [bus] money."
Moroni doesn’t mind riding on his the roads while his lunch partner, Abigail, 19, who only got her e-scooter three days ago, says she prefers to stick to the pavement.
But local pedestrians are not all happy about the swelling ranks of riders on their streets.
What is most controversial about e-scooters is where exactly they’re supposed to go. Pedestrians feel they are too dangerous on the pavement while drivers see them as a liability on the roads.
"They’re a bit of a menace," says Keith, 47, who works in admin. "Especially when they’re whizzing round the corner when I’m with my kids.
"They seem to go where they like, no different to the bikes really, just another hazard to look out for."
Full-time Mum, Vera, 43, agrees and she’s definitely noticed more e-scooters since the pandemic. "I think they’re a bit dangerous when they go really fast."
Croydon Council is not expected to ride to pedestrians’ rescue; it has bigger problems with its effective declaration of bankruptcy earlier this month.
Instead enforcement falls to the police, who have been trying to "engage" e-scooter riders as part of their "operation hornet" programme.
A police spokesperson told The Telegraph: "The Metropolitan Police Service recognises the need for more sustainable and greener methods of transport however, it is important that members of the public realise that under current legislation, the riding of private e-scooters on the road or in a public place remains illegal."
For rental companies trying to introduce e-scooters into the UK legally, the pandemic boom in unregulated rides creates bad publicity at a time when they are eyeing expansion and trying to highlight the scooters’ green benefits.
"It is of course an issue when people ride them illegally, definitely any malpractice or bad user behaviour in London right now with private scooters sheds a bad light on scooters in general," says Felix Eggert, a spokesperson for the Wind, an e-scooter company which currently rents out e-scooters as part of council-approved schemes running in Nottingham and Derby.
But even with legal, rented scooters, the pavement dilemma continues to be a problem as many riders show a reluctance to use the roads.
Wind, as well as Swedish scooter rental company Voi, are both deploying technologies such as geo-fencing and computer vision to automatically prevent their e-scooters from flying down pavements or pedestrian areas.
On Monday, Transport for London announced a year-long rental trial in the capital, echoing those already taking place in cities like Nottingham and Derby.
So far, most of the London boroughs that have signed up are in central and north London – Croydon is not yet one of them.
But for some, e-scooter rental trials feel out of step in places where people in places like Croydon are displaying a clear desire to buy their own.
The pavement dilemma
Huw Merriman, chair of the transport committee and Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, says he experiences "the danger" posed by e-scooters daily. "The reality is if you’re a pedestrian you’re facing and it’s coming straight towards you, it’s pretty terrifying," he says.
That’s exactly why he is advocating for the law to catch up with reality. "We can’t close our eyes and pretend this is not happening when there’s a clear and apparent danger that I experience on a daily basis. We can regulate them, ensure that they go on to the streets and off the pavement."
However not everyone thinks e-scooters belong on the road.
For rental companies trying to introduce e-scooters into the UK legally, the pandemic boom in unregulated rides creates bad publicity
Alix, 29, who works in TV, says she feels nervous driving alongside the e-scooters that are populating the roads near her home in East London. "It’s dangerous," she says, describing how they zoom across crossings with little warning. "I don’t want them to die."
She adds: "Maybe in other cities, it would work, but we’re not set up for it here."
Dermot Paul Hanney, creator of the London cycle map Route Plan Roll, agrees – the boom in e-scooters calls for a new type of infrastructure; perhaps creating another argument for segregated cycle lanes.
"E-scooters are not made for use in pedestrian space," he says. "At the same time they do not fit into high traffic high speed roads as shown by people being reluctant to use them there."
Croydon’s enthusiasm for e-scooters shows how the technology has landed on a sweet spot – they are a green, socially distant form of transport that saves people time and money.
But e-scooters are not in a trial phase, they’re here now and legislation needs to get ahead of that, experts claim.
Emerging from a lunch spot deli, one man says he uses his e-scooter because "They’re easy and they’re quick," promptly flying off into the distance on the pavement before he could be asked for his name.