Published: 06:00, 11 April 2021
Escooters are proving a controversial addition to Canterbury city centre, so it was with trepidation that KentOnline reporter Lydia Chantler-Hicks unlocked one this week.
Here's how she got on...
Sleek, matte black and totally bereft of Barbie branding, the Bird vehicles are a far cry from the beloved little scooter I rode to school when I was six.
They are heavy and very sturdy-feeling and as I wheeled mine out from its parking bay, it struck me as bizarre that I – with no training whatsoever – had been allowed free reign of a vehicle I’ve never so much as touched before.
Keen to avoid embarrassing myself in front of the teenagers grouped nearby, I found a spot down an empty side-road to give it a try.
Pushing off with one foot, I pressed down on the throttle with my thumb and was shocked by its sudden burst of speed.
After a few lengths of the side-road, I headed to the city proper to give the escooter a spin around Burgate and St Peter’s Street.
The high street is a “no-ride” zone until 4pm but as it had reached 4.05pm I scooted from Mountain Warehouse towards St Dunstans.
The scooters are capped there at 7.5mph but there were few times when I felt confident going at full speed.
Although a relatively quiet afternoon, there were a fair number of shoppers and vehicles around and I frequently slowed to a stop to avoid people, or let cars go by.
Elsewhere in the city, the scooters travel at a maximum 15mph. That may feel like nothing in a car but standing on an electric scooter for the first time, it feels fast.
Bird does make it clear that you should wear a helmet when scooting.
With my bike in another city I didn't have one to hand and - probably naively - presumed one would be provided. But it was not.
I do wonder how many people are likely to wear helmets when using the escooters, although they certainly should.
Not one of the other people I saw scooting on Tuesday was wearing one and asking people to carry their own helmet around seems a little at odds with the supposedly convenient, hop-on-hop-off nature of the scheme.
I stopped in Burgate for a short while to take photos, propping my scooter up on its kickstand.
To my horror, as I tried pushing it away again, it began emitting a shrill, incessant beeping sound.
The escooter began beeping angrily
I tried troubleshooting the issue on the app but after clicking through the 'help' page to a section marked 'trouble with your ride', I was maddengingly met with 'The page you were looking for doesn't exist'.
After a flustered few minutes and plenty of raised eyebrows from passers-by, I realised the scooter had locked itself - presumably some kind of anti-theft mechanism - and managed to unlock it using the app.
I encountered a fair amount of scepticism as I scooted around the city.
The escooters are perfectly legal and I was riding mine by the book.
But I still got a lot of stares and glares from passers-by, who presumably disapproved of the trial or suspected I might be some kind of scooter hooligan.
A couple of people watched interestedly and asked ‘what’s it like?’ but one woman stopped me to pointedly outline in superlative terms why she thought the trial an “absolutely ridiculous” idea.
On a smooth surface, the escooters ride beautifully. But the city’s cobbles and more uneven stretches of Tarmac make for a pretty bumpy ride and I did hop off at points.
The escooters are supposed to use the same spaces as bikes and are not allowed on pavements. But as the new kid on the block, motorists and cyclists don’t quite seem to know how to treat them.
When bikes approached, I too didn’t know what to do and sheepishly pulled over to let them zoom past.
The scooters also have no indicators, and don’t appear to have brake lights.
When cycling, it’s easy to just stick out an arm to signal where you’re going. But as an escooting novice navigating a bumpy road, I didn’t feel confident doing that.
After nearly an hour on the escooter, I did start to feel more comfortable with it.
But my confidence waned as I made my way up New Dover Road, hugging the kerb as I joined the stream of cars leaving the city.
The trial rules say escooters should “occupy the same road space as bikes” but I felt quite vulnerable scooting along at 15mph.
I said goodbye to my scooter by Barton Vets in New Dover Road, rather relieved.
Would I ride one again? Maybe. Perhaps if a friend was visiting and we needed to get from A to B.
Downloading the Bird app, scanning my driving licence and creating an account took all of about five minutes and it was easy enough to find an available scooter using the map.
But my ride was about an hour and 15 minutes long, and cost £14.87, so these definitely aren’t for just cruising around on all day.
It’s also clear to see why some people are worried about what will happen when shops and restaurants reopen and people start piling back into the city.
Why are escooters being trialled in Canterbury?
About 150 electric scooters are now available to hire across Canterbury.
It's part of a trial which aims to reduce congestion and provide a convenient alternative mode of transport.
The trial was originally in operation on a restricted route between the city’s universities, but was last week vastly expanded to include the city centre.
It also includes sites such as the Kent and Canterbury Hospital and the city’s train stations.
Escooter-lending company Bird has been appointed by Kent County Council to head up the scheme, which is part of a new Department for Transport initiative.
The escooters are only available to people aged 18 and above, with a provisional or full driver’s licence.
Riding privately-owned escooters remains illegal in public areas.
Meanwhile, the trial escooters use the same road space as bicycles and are not be permitted to travel on the pavement.
If the city centre roll-out is successful, the final phase of the trial will see it expanded to include the broader urban area of Canterbury from May 17.
What do local people say?
The major expansion of the city’s escooter trial has been met with concerns over safety.
Many are worried the vehicles, with a 15mph top speed, could pose a danger to pedestrians and that “accidents will inevitably happen”.
Kent county councillor Ida Linfield has warned the scheme “will be lethal” if speed limits are not reviewed on a street-by-street basis.
She says electric transport options must be explored, to prevent Canterbury from “choking to death” on pollution.
But she has already been contacted by several residents who have concerns about the speed of the trial escooters.
“I think they need to reduce the speeds in certain city streets,” she said. “Particularly ones where there are a lot of houses that come straight on to the pavement, and a lot of sheltered housing.
"You can’t have scooters going tonking along at 15mph in those areas.”
Cllr Linfield praised the way Bird and KCC have responded to feedback.
But she added: “My real concern is it will end up being an absolute disaster, someone will be hurt, because [the trial] hasn’t been done properly.
"God knows what will happen when the trial’s extended through Wincheap and Sturry to the park and rides. It will be lethal.”
“God forbid somebody gets hit by an electric scooter.
“It’s got to be looked at on a street-by-street basis.
“Unless there’s more structure, God knows what will happen when the trial’s extended through Wincheap and Sturry to the park and rides. It will be lethal.”
The high street is a “no-ride zone” between 10.30am and 4pm – meaning the escooters cannot be used there – and outside those hours speeds are capped at 7.5mph. But a video of three young men scooting along St Peter’s Street amid clusters of pedestrians at 4.20pm has already sparked criticism on social media.
Stour Street resident Paul Johnson, who captured the footage, says he is “angry and very concerned” about the trial.
“My elderly mother was almost knocked down by [an escooter] and my friend’s mother made the front page of [KentOnline's sister paper] the Kentish Gazette last year when she was knocked down and almost incapacitated [by a privately-owned escooter],” he said.
“Elderly people and small children do not have the same reflexes as people like myself and the fact that you cannot hear the scooters coming up behind you can cause great anxiety when walking about in what is meant to be a pedestrian-friendly city centre.
“Accidents will inevitably happen and perhaps will be the only way to cancel this pointless scheme.”
Cllr Nick Eden-Green, who represents Wincheap for the Lib Dems, added concerns over the quietness of the vehicles.
“They do sometimes go very fast,” he said. “They can’t be heard coming up behind you.
“I wonder whether the electric scooter trial scheme will encourage people to use them in other routes, and whether we’ll see growth of privateers who perhaps don’t use their scooters as responsibly as they should.
"But it’s a trial, we’ll need to see."
Meanwhile city councillor Dave Wilson (Lab), who has long opposed the escooter trial, has branded the expansion "badly thought-out".
"The Bird escooters are permitted to use pavements and roads, rather than being separated from pedestrians and motor vehicles," he said.
"That is a recipe for injury and, at worst, death.
"What is needed is significant investment to allow those users to safely travel around the city – and the rest of the district – clearly separated from pedestrians and road traffic. That same infrastructure should also be available for bicycles."
Others have voiced support for the scheme.
Among them is resident Alistair Noel, who praised the trial’s green credentials.
Canterbury residents give their thoughts on the escooter roll-out
“You hop on one of these, it’s electric, there are no emissions,” he said. “It’s exactly the right move we should be following in this day and age.”
One resident called them “fantastic”, while another woman said: “I’m on the fence. On the one hand it’s a fun, quick way of getting around.
“On the other, they will start to become an issue for the public walking around.”
Bird, which operates in more than 160 cities around the world, maintains that safety is a top priority.
Spokesman Harry Porter said: “The speed is generally capped at 15mph. We have many other slow zones around parks, hospitals, care homes, schools to cap the speed even further.
“These speeds are consistent with our operations across the world where incidents involving our scooters are incredibly rare.”
The trial is set to end on November 1 but may be extended by the Department for Transport.
KCC’s consultation is available on the authority’s website.