Britain is launching e-scooter trials ahead of schedule. These are the start-ups racing to take part

Key Points
  • Bird, Lime, Voi and Tier are all in talks with local authorities about launching trials in British cities as early as next month. 
  • Trials were scheduled to take place in 2021 but Transport Secretary Grant Shapps decided to bring them forward as the U.K. looks to come out of lockdown. 
  • E-scooters have proved popular in other cities but they aren't without their problems. 
A man riding a Lime e-scooter in Berlin, Germany on June 21, 2019.
Thomas Trutschel | Photothek via Getty Images

Electric scooter companies are racing to take part in planned U.K. trials after the test window was brought forward to next month, from 2021, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. firms Bird and Lime confirmed to CNBC that they are in talks with several local authorities across the U.K. about applying for permission to test their e-scooter rental services, as did European start-ups Voi and Tier.

As the U.K. starts to ease its lockdown, the government says it's taking steps to avoid a second wave of cases. The virus can spread easily on public transport, so people are being told to avoid using trains and buses wherever possible. If everyone were to start driving in their cars again, roads would quickly become clogged up and pollution levels would soar. The City of London is banning cars entirely on the busiest roads to help manage the anticipated return of tens of thousands of workers. 

Fredrik Hjelm, the CEO and co-founder of Sweden-headquartered Voi, said his firm is recruiting a team in the U.K. to work with authorities on rolling out e-scooters.

"Right now we have an opportunity to reinvent urban transport and to increase our use of electric vehicles, bikes and e-scooters," Hjelm told CNBC in a statement this week.

Voi said it has been talking to Transport for London and London boroughs, as well as Manchester, Salford, Bath, Teeside, Darlington, Hartlepool, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Who's in the lead?

Lime indicated it could be at an advantage in the race to put the two-wheelers on Britain's streets, as it already runs several popular e-bike rental schemes across the country.

"We hope to be able to follow this model and partner with boroughs and local authorities to offer our e-scooters as soon as possible," said Alan Clarke, Lime's director of policy and government relations in the U.K. and Ireland.

Many countries in Europe have embraced e-scooters but they are still illegal on U.K. roads as a result of a law dating back to 1835. They're also banned on sidewalks.

In a bid to clamp down on people riding their own e-scooters, police have issued fines and confiscated e-scooters. However, one small Bird trial has been taking place on private land in London's Olympic Park. Bird argued that this pilot could place it in a good position to gain access to Britain's wider rollout.

Sam Shead

Patrick Studener, head of EMEA at Bird, said: "We've been very fortunate to have the U.K.'s only electric scooter pilot in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Over the last year-and-a-half we've had MPs and city officials down to the park to see for themselves the advantages scooters — and specifically Bird — can bring to towns and cities throughout the U.K."

"Following the government's announcement on scooter trials, we've had dozens of inquiries from city officials who want to get their cities moving again; congestion and emission free, while maintaining social distancing. We're looking forward to further guidance from the Department for Transport on how and when we can implement our service here."

An e-scooter consultation period was due to take place next year in four corners of England — Portsmouth and Southampton, the West of England Combined Authority, Derby and Nottingham, and the West Midlands.

But over the weekend, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he was fast-tracking the consultation period to next month and making it nationwide. If the trials are successful, then laws will likely be updated.

Shapps said he would be "fast-tracking trials of e-scooters, bringing this programme already underway for next year forward to next month, and extending those trials from four local authorities to every region in the country that wants them in a bid to get e-scooter rented schemes up and running in cities."

The trials do not extend to privately owned e-scooters at this stage.

Still early days

Scooter-sharing companies and local authorities that CNBC spoke with said they're still awaiting clarity from the government on the next steps. Iyma Atiq, communications manager for Birmingham City Council, said the Department for Transport had written to all local authorities about fast-tracking the scheme.

"The Council will be participating in briefings with DfT and will look to work with provider partners to shape a trial scheme that best fits with our local environment and wider policy objectives," said Atiq. "Until we have more detail we are understandably not in a position to talk about specific potential operators."

Although e-scooters and e-bikes are touted as a more pleasant way to get from A to B, they aren't without their problems. Some cities, such as Paris, have struggled to deal with the sheer number of e-scooters that have been dumped on their streets by companies like Lime and Bird. 

Questions have also been raised about the relatively short lifespan of some vehicles, as well as how safe they are.

Bird investor Martin Mignot, a partner at venture capital firm Index Ventures, told CNBC that now is the time to rethink cities. 

"We're at a crossroads," he said. "This is the time to make roads safer and hopefully some of the companies we've invested in will be part of that."