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UK to review laws that block billion-dollar scooter companies

[LONDON ] The banning of e-scooters on British roads is being reconsidered after the UK government said it was opening "the biggest regulatory review in a generation" of current mobility laws, some of which date back to 1835.

The government said on Tuesday that it wanted to start the process of modernising existing legislation, which was proving to be a barrier to innovation, and will offer £90 million (S$161.4 million) of funding for mobility trials.

"We are at a potentially pivotal moment for the future of transport, with revolutionary technologies creating huge opportunities," British Transport Minister Jesse Norman said in a statement. "Through this strategy the government aims to take advantage of these innovations."

The European scooter industry has attracted more than US$150 million of investment from venture capital firms over the past year according to data compiled by Bloomberg. US rivals such as Lime and Bird Rides Inc have also raised hundreds of millions of dollars and aggressively expanded across the continent.

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But in the UK e-scooters are classed as motor vehicles, or "powered transporters" - subject to tax, driver licences and insurance - and the UK's Highways Act of 1835 stipulates that footpaths must be for the sole use of pedestrians. It effectively means every so-called last mile mobility company is blocked from operating anything but highly limited trials.

The emergence of new business models, such as that of Uber Technologies Inc, has also led many governments to rethink urban transport. The UK government cited figures it had compiled that showed traffic congestion alone cost the taxpayer about 2 billion pounds a year.

However, a spokesman for the government said in a statement that there were "no current plans to bring forward legislation to legalise e-scooters". Instead, the announcement marked the start of the process of reviewing current policy to help lawmakers approve subsequent public trials, which could result in overhauled rules.

The government said it also wanted to ensure mobility services helped move the country towards zero-emission travel; that "active travel" such as walking and cycling must remain the best option for short urban journeys; and data gathered by mobility services "must be shared where appropriate".

The latter point mirrors policy in cities such as Paris, where e-scooter operators provide regulators and officials with anonymous journey statistics to help reveal where public transit systems may be failing to accommodate demand.

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