Electric bicycles (e-bikes), driven by a hybrid of old-style muscle power and motors that give riders a boost, have become omnipresent. As with most new technologies, they have become much cheaper, more reliable, and more efficient since they appeared on the market in the 1980s, and are available to rent in popular destinations around the world. From France's Loire valley to the national parks of the US and cities like Amsterdam, e-bike tours have become a new and sometimes controversial part of the marketing mix. Airlines such as Ryanair actively sell e-bike city tours in many of the destinations they fly to.
As many as 40 million e-bikes are now made each year and their popularity has made them one of the fastest expanding elements of the transport market. As their popularity grows, many more people are using them for the first time while on vacation.
“E-bikes and e-scooters are becoming more popular in tourist destinations around the world, and it is important to know if you are covered by your travel insurance before you ride,” said Kasara Barto, a spokesperson for Squaremouth, a US-based travel insurance comparison site.
The e-scooter rental sector has clearly reached critical mass and isn't going away
In January 2019, the European Parliament decided against classifying electric bikes as motor vehicles as part of a new Motor Insurance Directive, a move that would have made full motor insurance including third-party liability cover compulsory for e-cyclists. The decision was welcomed by manufacturers and cycling lobbyists, who claimed it would deter consumers from buying into a clean, green and innovative form of transport.
Are e-bikes inherently riskier to riders (and third parties) than conventional bicycles? Some statistics seem to suggest they are, and that older cyclists may be a greater risk, partly perhaps because e-bikes are most popular with the older generation of riders.
One nationwide British bike seller, Halfords, says that 65 per cent of e-bike buyers are over 55 years old, while one in four Dutch cyclists involved in fatal bike accidents were riding e-bikes, according to the official Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (Statistics Netherlands). Three out of four of those killed were males over 65. Fatalities involving e-bikes doubled in 2017, according to Statistics Netherlands.
E-bikes are most popular with the older generation of riders
In the US, the National Park Service has controversially announced that it will open up cycle trails to e-bikes with a top speed of 28 mph as part of the Trump administration's ongoing commercialisation of America's national parks. In the UK, (except for Northern Ireland), anyone over 14 may legally ride an e-bike on or off-road, though not on the sidewalk – a rule that is often broken, as it is by unpowered cyclists – and e-bikes do not require insurance or registration. In Northern Ireland, however, e-bikes are treated as mopeds and must be licensed, registered, taxed and insured.
The European Commission had argued that e-bikes and electric scooters (also called personal light electric vehicles or PLEVs) should be defined as 'new types of electric motor vehicles' and so were already within the scope of the EU Motor Insurance Directive, adding that such vehicles have the potential to cause accidents, whose victims need protection and swift reimbursement.
Meanwhile, the worldwide boom in short-term electric scooter rental in cities around the world is another potential cause for concern. Companies like US-based Bird, arguably the biggest player in the sphere, and its rival Lime, rent e-scooters from multiple outlets in popular US and European city destinations for as little as €10 per hour. Lime, which already operates in around 60 US cities, is expected to have a presence in up to 30 European cities soon, and European startups like Berlin-based Tier, active in 40 cities across 12 countries, and Stockholm-based Voi, present in around 25 European cities, are also in contention. The e-scooter rental sector has clearly reached critical mass and isn't going away.
Regulation and enforcement differ widely from country to country and even city to city. Where e-scooter rental is already on offer, it is generally a 'dockless', paperwork-free process (unlike conventional car rental operations). Scooters are fitted with GPS trackers, and renters pick up, unlock, pay for, and drop off vehicles wherever they choose, using an app on their mobile device. Rental companies like Lime do publish safety guidelines on their websites, but leave it up to clients to abide by them.
“Each [US] state has different rules and regulations regarding e-scooters,” pointed out Dale Q. Williams, Chief Operating Officer of Einsurance.com, a US-based online insurance marketplace blog. “It is not required that you have insurance while you operate one, and e-scooter companies typically won’t cover you in the event of an accident. In addition, your homeowner’s insurance usually excludes claims arising out of the use of motor vehicles, and your personal auto insurance excludes liability coverage for a vehicle with fewer than four wheels. There’s a chance you may be covered under your health insurance policy if you get injured from an accident. Also, some personal umbrella policies may provide coverage.”
Williams surmised: “To sum it all up, although you are not required to have e-scooter insurance, it is certainly in your best interest to have some coverage either through personal umbrella insurance or third party coverage provided by the e-scooter company you rented from.”
E-scooter and e-bike rental companies (such as Amsterdam's long-established Black Bikes, an early adopter of e-bikes) normally build third-party liability and damage insurance into the rental price to protect their own investment. They do not generally offer wider insurance cover.
“Travellers do need to be aware that liability is never covered by travel insurance,” explained Squaremouth’s Kasara Barto. “If an accident causes damage to the e-bike, e-scooter or to another vehicle, that damage will not be covered.”
E-scooter rental companies (or 'micromobility companies') say they take rider safety seriously and that they take steps to make sure renters are aware of local road safety rules. “There is no evidence in our data that suggests riders who rent scooters while on holiday are more accident-prone,” said Sarah Seymour, a spokesperson for Lime. Seymour notes that Lime does not sell insurance to renters or make recommendations regarding travel insurance 'as this is an individual decision'. “However,” she adds, “in every market we operate in, we abide by the insurance policies required by local law. Our insurance meets or exceeds the requirements set forth by local regulators.”
Still, Seymour adds that for whatever reason people choose to use Lime, whether it be as part of a holiday or simply for their daily commute, the company is committed to educating its riders, offering users safety tutorials that must be watched before an individual can unlock their first scooter.
As with most new technologies, e-bikes have become much cheaper, more reliable, and more efficient since they appeared on the market in the 1980s
“We encourage all our riders to comply with local regulations and urge riders to always use helmets,” she told ITIJ. “We invested US$3 million in the 'Respect the Ride' campaign, where 140,000 riders to date have pledged to follow safe riding practices.”
Nevertheless, the onus is still on the individual renter, not on the rental company, to ride safely – and it is estimated that as few as one in 10 e-scooter riders wear helmets. In 2019, an investigation by US organisation Consumer Reports, which highlighted accidents involving e-scooter riders in American cities, reported that there have been at least eight deaths and 1,500 injuries since 2017.
In 2019, following reports of an increasing number of accidents involving e-scooters, the Amsterdam city government moved to ban scooters on public cycle paths and limit their use to roads. Scooter riders will also be required by law to wear helmets, which have not been mandatory until now. Other Netherlands municipalities are expected to follow suit.
In Madrid (which banned rental scooters from its streets in 2018), privately-owned scooters may be used on streets, but not on sidewalks or pedestrian zones. France allows e-scooters to be ridden on sidewalks at no more than six kph, or on roads at a maximum speed of 25 kph. In the US, meanwhile, New York City has banned e-scooters altogether, and riders risk a US$500 fine, but California allows them to be ridden on roads and cycle lanes. In Germany, the maximum permitted speed on bike paths and roads is 20 kph, and there is a €30 fine for riding on pavements.
In the UK, e-scooters have not previously been legally used except on private property. In London, police have reportedly confiscated e-scooters from owners who used them on roads, sidewalks or cycle paths. In July 2020, however, the British Government changed its stance. Under the new rules set out by the Department for Transport, local authorities and devolved administrations in the UK can allow or run e-scooter sharing schemes in their areas as part of 12-month trials. Rental e-scooters can now be used on roads; it is recommended that riders wear helmets. Major e-scooter rental companies are no doubt salivating at the prospect of the emergence of a huge new market.
If older e-bike riders may be a worry for insurers, younger and less responsible scooter riders are already a concern in many cities, especially those with a reputation as ‘party towns’. In August 2019, local politicians in Munich reportedly demanded that e-scooter riding should be banned during Oktoberfest, the annual beer festival that has become a magnet for hundreds of thousands of fun-loving millennials, after a number of e-scooter users were charged with riding while drunk. Concerns surrounding irresponsible riders have also been voiced in cities as diverse as Amsterdam, Copenhagen , Singapore, and Atlanta.
“Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs is excluded by all travel insurance policies,” commented Barto of Squaremouth. “If a traveller requires any emergency medical attention while intoxicated, travel insurance will not cover it.”
Younger and less responsible scooter riders are already a concern in many cities
Generally, though, e-bikes and e-scooters can be covered by a standard travel insurance policy, specifically in terms of medical coverage for injuries sustained while using them, as well as any prepaid expenses related to them, she says: “Most insurers consider e-bikes and e-scooters the same as a standard street bike, and can provide coverage for injuries or even deaths that may occur while riding."
If claims relating to e-scooter rentals trend upwards as they become even more widely available, it isn't inconceivable that insurers might reconsider their position. For now, though, e-scooter and e-bike renters don't seem to be a worry on a par with conventional bike and scooter riders in poorly regulated holiday destinations.