Electric Scooters Go Up Against U.K. Highways Act of 1835

(Bloomberg) --

Electric scooters taking U.S. cities by storm are illegal on British roads, symptomatic of English legislation that dates back to the year of Mark Twain’s birth — and still in force today. It’s deeply irritating for owners of such devices (read: me) who see inexperienced teenagers permitted to pedal down London’s congested highways, often without helmets, sometimes inebriated, on bicycles rented from a dock on the sidewalk.

But in the business world it’s more than just an irritation. U.S. e-scooter startup Bird is struggling to get a pilot program underway in London, after trying for months to win over the city’s transit regulator and adhere to highway legislation.

Executives at the company, based in Los Angeles and most recently valued at $2 billion, have been in discussions with the U.K’s Department for Transport and city authority since last year. Messages obtained following a Freedom of Information request filed on July 4 illustrate their growing frustrations.

“What I cannot understand is why London cannot take lead on this with Bird,” Richard Corbett, Bird’s new U.K. manager, said in a LinkedIn message to Transport of London Director of Transport Innovation Michael Hurwitz that month.

The problem encapsulates what happens when the seemingly unstoppable expansion of a West Coast startup meets the immovable force of a foreign regulator. At less than two years old, Bird is younger than some of the beef in my freezer, yet it’s raised $418 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Accel, and Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures, and operates in more than 20 U.S. cities as well as Paris and Tel Aviv.

But in the U.K., scooters like those used by Bird are classed as motor vehicles, or “powered transporters” — subject to tax, driver licenses and insurance. The Department for Transport — which manages regulation across the U.K. — says it’s not possible to get a permit because electric scooters would not comply “with the normal vehicle construction rules.”

Part of the problem for Bird, founded in April 2017, is the U.K’s Highways Act of 1835, which stipulates that footpaths must be for the sole use of pedestrians, and forbids the driving of any “horse, ass, sheep, mule, swine, or cattle or carriage of any description.” Just over a decade ago, when two-wheeled Segways threatened to change commuter habits, the DfT banned the self-balancing people-carriers from pavements, invoking the Highways Act.

Bird not only has to change the DfT’s rules, it also has to woo Transport for London, the regulator primarily responsible for the U.K. capital’s road and rail networks. TfL has a history of banning billion-dollar startups from operating. Uber has just managed to win a 15-month extension on its operating license, after being told to cease operations. European ride-hailing company Taxify OU is in ongoing negotiations with TfL after being suspended in September, a week after starting, following questions about how it obtained its license.

“TfL will know that I am someone who will not take ‘no' for an answer,” Bird’s Corbett wrote in an email to Hurwitz around the beginning of July, after pointing out that he spent four years as CEO of Eyetease, that launched a taxi-top video advertising system for London’s iconic black cabs in 2014.

Hurwitz told Corbett that TfL had been in touch with Bird previously, and “been through at some length how prohibitive the national legislative environment is for e-scooters at present.”

According to one email, Patrick Studener, the company’s manager for the EMEA region, asked TfL whether using scooters on London’s bicycle lanes might be possible, and requested documents that detailed the city’s transportation laws. “We will review them and also compare them to our technical specs and see if there is a way to work within the existing legislation,” he wrote in a message to TfL.

Despite the impasse, London is still a target for Bird. On Aug. 3, a meeting was scheduled between Corbett, Hurwitz, TfL’s Head of Foresight Ian Macbeth, and Senior Policy Manager Mike Beevor. No concrete plans were formed as part of this introductory meeting, according to a person familiar with the talks, but the conversation was said to be positive and left the door open for more discussions over the coming weeks.

But with London’s doors to Europe closing in the coming months thanks to Brexit, however, I get the impression legislative reform efforts will be directed toward “can we avoid excessive import tax on goods from the continent?” rather than “can we make it legal for Nate Lanxon to ride his scooter to the Bloomberg office?”

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