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Dockless Electric Bikes – A Move to Licensing?

Robert Botkai

Dockless Electric Bikes (‘e-bikes’) are the latest sustainable transport trend taking over cities in England. Their appeal lies, alongside their electric pedal assistance, in the convenience of being able to leave a bike in a location suitable to users, rather than in prescribed areas; they are ‘dockless’. As a result, as there is no permanent structure placed on any roads, at present there is no obligation for operators to hold any kind of licence. However, the lack of regulation of e-bike schemes in London has led to criticism, largely concerning the excess of abandoned bicycles in pedestrian areas around the city, and the need for increased regulation has been acknowledged by both operators and local authorities.

International Approaches

Cities across the US experienced a rush of e-bike and scooter schemes prior to the UK, where scooters are not yet permitted, and they have already had to deal with issues of regulation. These cities looked to the extreme build-up of abandoned bicycles following pioneering e-bike schemes in China, and adjusted their approach accordingly. In San Francisco, following an initial influx of e-bike companies, city officials regulated competing companies by limiting both the number of bikes and time period for which each company could operate, distributing five permits for five-hundred scooters in June 2018 in a year-long trial. This approach was replicated in numerous cities across the US, such as Philadelphia’s introduction of one company to a small area of the city in 2019.
Like the e-bike schemes themselves, this regulatory approach has not been confined to the US, but is being adopted across the world. In December 2017 Auckland Council introduced a policy requiring e-bike companies to hold licences in order to operate, citing the promotion of safety and the prevention of masses of abandoned bikes as justification.

Initial Moves in the UK

The UK is yet to introduce an official regulatory regime for e-bikes. However London Boroughs and provincial councils have taken steps to address the issues presented. Several London Borough Councils have entered into Memorandums of Understanding with operators, allowing the use of e-bikes within their boroughs and dictating relations between the Council and operators. However, council led initiatives are somewhat restricted by a lack of legislative power. Oxford City Council imposed a voluntary code of conduct in an attempt to make sure that bikes would not be left in inconvenient places. However reports of obstructive bicycles still followed.
Brent Council proposed that under the London Local Authorities Act 1990, they could require e-bike operators to obtain Street Trading Licences in order to operate, giving the Council greater input over the schemes and increasing regulation. They intended to use this in conjunction with their powers under the Highway Act 1980 to remove abandoned bicycles they deemed obstructive. If this was implemented across London, or adapted into its own ‘dockless bike licence’, it would likely be to the detriment of e-bike’s dockless nature.

Guidance could be taken from the licences that are required to place tables and chairs on the pavement outside cafes and bars. These require not only a street trading licence, but also impose a minimum amount of ‘footway’ that must not be obstructed, approximately 1.8 metres. However, the legality of such licences is in dispute, as the City of London has since stated that the definition of ‘street trading’ does not include dockless e-bikes.

The most concerted attempt at regulation is a byelaw proposed by Transport for London (‘TfL’) in June 2019. The byelaw corroborates TFL’s existing Dockless Bike Code of Practice, produced in September 2018. The Code sets out conditions that it expects e-bike schemes to adhere to, including stricter regulation of bike disposal. The Code highlights the power of Councils under the Highway Act 1980 to remove bicycles, but stops short of suggesting a form of licence. Drawing upon the need to prevent a build-up of abandoned bicycles, the proposed byelaw would see the creation of pre-approved parking areas across London, and require e-bikes to be left in these areas, rather than at users’ will. Boroughs would also be able to charge companies to leave their bikes in parking areas, enabling them to dictate, to a degree, which companies operate in their jurisdiction. A London-wide policy would undoubtedly increase regulation, although each borough would be left with the autonomy to determine how many parking areas would be created, if any. This, alongside a proposal that all e-bikes be equipped with GPS tracking, would lead to greater overall regulation, increasing control over both the companies that operate, and the volume and location of e-bikes.

Conclusion – A Move to Increased Regulation?

Given the difficulties addressed in potential regulation, some argue that rather than TfL or the London Borough Councils, e-bike regulation should be legislated by Parliament.

Corroboratively, a report from the London Assembly Transport Committee in early 2018 stated that the current Code of Practice should be replaced by a stricter licensing system in order to control the issues presented by e-bike schemes, such as the build-up of abandoned bicycles. There is also an argument that a London-wide policy is insufficient and that Parliament should devise a national policy.

Regardless of the geographic level of regulation, the difficulty for those devising it will undoubtedly be how to balance the convenience to users of being able to pick up and deposit a bike anywhere they choose, with the inevitable diminish in this versatility that will come with increased regulation.

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