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A public vote on the future of hireable escooters

This content is from a post written by former Gabba Ward Councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan on 11th August 2023.

A lot of people in our city have strong views about escooters. Some think that they’re so dangerous that they should be banned outright, others think they’re an important piece of the transport mix that help reduce car-dependency.

There are certainly lots of escooter-related injuries being reported at Brisbane hospitals (mostly people who are actually using the vehicles rather than other members of the public), but objectively speaking, cars are far more dangerous in a collision than scooters are. So any conversation about the future of these devices needs to maintain some perspective and recognise that if we were genuinely concerned about safety and comfort of pedestrians, we would start by reducing inner-city speed limits (for all motorised vehicles) and installing more safe pedestrian crossings and traffic calming.

Some people argue that escooters are a net environmental positive because they replace car trips. Other people point out that the hireable escooters which are mostly deployed in the inner-city are actually more likely to replace walking/pedal power/public transport, and that very few people are using hireable escooters to commute daily from the outer burbs.

In Queensland, the overarching rules regarding escooters and ebikes – including what kinds of devices are legal, what the standard speed limits should be etc – are set by the State Government. But although Brisbane City Council doesn’t have much power or control over private escooters, it does set the rules and negotiate the operating agreements for private escooter hire companies like Beam and Neuron.
So, should BCC make changes to how and where hireable escooters (and ebikes) can be deployed and operated?

In the Greens, we think this should be up to residents to decide.

So many of the big decisions about the future of our city are made by politicians and senior public servants who are prone to direct manipulation by big corporations. I noticed this first-hand when escooters were first proposed in Brissie. The multinational escooter companies sent public relations advisers and high-paid lobbyists into meetings with councillors and state politicians to convince them why they should immediately allow the hireable escooters to be rolled out into public spaces.

This is a problem, because a handful of politicians in city hall can overlook important issues that might be more obvious to ordinary people on the ground.

For example, every single vision-impaired person I know has a story about hurting themselves due to tripping on an escooter that was left blocking a footpath, and lots of people with impaired mobility complain about the escooters blocking paths and preventing them getting around. But the majority of city councillors don’t spend much time walking around inner-city areas where the scooters are deployed (and don’t have impaired mobility) – they all have council-funded private cars, and drive home to their suburban electorates (where there generally aren’t many scooters blocking footpaths) and so receive relatively little direct feedback from the residents who are most affected by the placement of hireable escooters.

When there are so many competing factors to weigh up, and so many different perspectives to consider, sometimes it’s better to rely on the wisdom of the crowd and give people a direct say, rather than decisions being left up to the politicians alone (particularly when those politicians are so susceptible to manipulation by big business).

That’s why the draft Greens policy position for the 2024 city council election (I say draft, because we haven’t yet published our whole policy platform) on escooters reads:

A public vote on the future of hireable escooters
Brisbane City Council should undertake a public referendum to determine whether operating licenses should be renewed or revoked for escooter hire companies in Brisbane. Rather than a simple Yes or No vote, the public vote should also consider subsidiary questions such as:
- whether hireable escooters should simply be banned from specific areas rather than from the entire city,
- whether operating license fees should be increased, and
- whether higher fines should be enforced for escooters that are left in unsafe locations

A public vote on the future of hireable escooters would be non-binding – it wouldn’t be mandatory to participate. But I think quite a lot of people who have strong views on the matter would be eager to have their say.

The costs of administering such a vote could be kept low by relying on digital voting. Residents could have a unique account that allows them to vote online, or at a council library/customer service centre. Perhaps the easiest way to manage voting accounts would be to expand Brisbane’s existing library membership system, which already has good checks and balances to guard against duplicate account creation (and which tens of thousands of Brisbane residents are already signed up for).

As spelled out in the policy, it wouldn’t just be a yes-no vote on whether hireable escooters should be banned or not. There would be subsidiary questions to flesh out other key issues, such as whether the licensing fees the scooter companies currently pay are high enough.

I imagine that if the public DID vote to keep hireable escooters operating in Brisbane, raising the licensing fees would generate more money to build more separated bike lanes.

Public votes on local issues are relatively rare in Australia, mostly because politicians (and their mates in big business) don’t want to relinquish any power. But we have the technology to facilitate such votes fairly easily.

Earlier this year, Paris held a vote on the future of escooters. Almost 90% of participants voted to ban them, and as of September 2023, the hireable escooters have been removed from Paris streets. Turnout for the vote was only 7.5% - 103 000 voters out of Paris’s 1.38 million registered voters. This low turnout is not SUPER surprising, given that even the turnout in local French elections is often under 30%, but I think the Paris city council would have gotten a higher turnout if they had digital voting rather than just in-person voting at polling booths.

There are plenty of precedents around the world for using direct voting regarding questions like this. And personally, in my previous experiments with participatory democracy, I’ve found that the more often you involve residents in meaningful decision-making, the more engaged and better-informed they become.
If we want to reverse collapsing faith in democracy, giving people direct power over the issues they care about is a key piece of the puzzle.

Obviously there’s a risk of misinformation, or vested interests deploying resources to undemocratically manipulate the outcome, but that same problem exists in conventional representative democracy systems where the politicians make all the decisions, and it’s not a compelling argument against experimenting with participatory democracy altogether.

At least if we put the question of hireable escooters to a public vote, we have a better chance of settling the matter and providing more certainty to everyone about which direction our city is heading in transport-wise.