Will it end in triumph – or in Tiers?

Tier’s electric hire scooters, which began their trials here in October 2020, are now a familiar sight in York. The trial is being extended to 2022, and you can now hire e-bikes too, at the same price as the scooters: £1 to hire, plus 15p a minute – £10 an hour, if you prefer.

A row of e-scooters and an e-bike
Ready to go, scooters and bikes parked up waiting for their next customer

What are the scooters and bikes like to ride? A blast, I must say. I found both usable with confidence straight away, even if I eschewed using their nifty folding helmets.

Balancing on the scooter was no problem for me, and the brakes could stop me smartly whenever I needed to. Tight turns can be tricky – I had to dismount and shuffle a bit at the hairpins either side of Scarborough Bridge over the river north of the train station – but I didn’t feel I presented a danger to any pedestrians as I glided past them. (The scooters are limited to 15mph, less in certain central areas, and won’t work outside their designated range.)

The e-bike was good to ride too, with e-assist kicking in after a pedal turn or two and a smooth, solid, if not exactly nimble ride. E-bikes are wonderful things, ‘cheating’ in the same way that suspension or gears or brakes are ‘cheating’: not at all, in other words, just an aspect of a type of bike. Instead of mildly dreading uphills, headwinds or energy-sapping gravel tracks, you look forward to skimming up, through or along them. It’s all downhill with the wind behind you on an e-bike.

An e-bike stood on its own
Electrical assist opens up the bike to a wider range rider abilities

Fun. Great fun.

But what about the effects on York’s travel habits? I doubt that either scooters or e-bikes will be of too much commuting or utility-cycling relevance to YCC members; they won’t do anything that bikes don’t already do in our ironing-board-flat home. However, it’s a great way to try out an e-bike if you’re thinking of buying one. 

How about the rest of us?

If they can encourage people to replace car journeys, great: that suggests a potential carbon saving. But if they’re simply a fun experience for visitors, or a cool way for students to not walk between lectures, then any claims for greenery are looking dubious.

It’s an issue that Tier’s Jess, who met up with us today to give us a quick demo of scooter and e-bike, is all to aware of. There are currently 2,000 active users in York, with typical journeys of 3km-4km. But right now these are instead of trips on foot, not by car. Jess and her Tier colleagues are clearly passionate and genuine about reducing motor journeys; but the scheme has to get many more scooters in many more docking stations in many more places, in amongst housing estates and developments, to do that. 

A row of e-scooters parked up at a docking station in a car park
Plenty of docking stations in the city centre, but stations further out are key

There’s a long way to go. Tier is still in the development phase, with lessons being learned, and designs of the e-bike and the general system still being tweaked. (The off-the-peg current e-bike models come with flimsy, superfluous locks, for instance.) 

I’ve also not been able to sign up yet because of problems with the app, which is unable to recognise my driving licence – a requirement for joining. (You are thus insured when you hire a Tier machine, and traceable: that’s why the e-scooters are allowed when private e-scooters effectively aren’t.) As Benjamin Franklin said, the only things certain in life are death, taxes, and technology failures blamed by every department on every other department.

So, as for the long-term impact (as Chou Enlai allegedly quipped when asked about the political effects of the French Revolution on the subsequent two centuries) it’s too early to tell. 

The key is reducing car dependence. But that’s a tall order, that no British scheme or business venture has ever really succeeded at. And talking of tall orders, as a not unusually lofty person, I found the saddle too low, even at maximum extent. As they’re perfectly aware, Tier has some lengths to go. 

Will ASLs become crowded with Tier hire machines and need enlarging? Will there be a backlash against reckless visitors careering down the riverside paths drunk, two on a scooter? Will bike parking spaces be sneakily removed to make room for new docking stations? Will there be problems we know? Or ones we didn’t know we didn’t know? 

Don't drink and drive sticker on the post of an e-scooter

Or will on-demand electric-assist transport begin to reverse our mania for using two tons of metal to edge one person through town at a crawl?

We’ll see over the next year. Let’s hope it’s as smooth a ride as on the scooters.

Review thanks to YCC member Rob Ainsley, follow Robs’ adventures by on bikes at @realcycling or at e2e.bike.

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