Thursday, 18 November 2021
Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the provisions in this Bill for e-scooters and other personal powered transporters. However, I feel we are in danger of overhyping both the benefits and the dangers of e-scooters. No doubt e-scooters will be useful for some people, especially people who do not enjoy secure cycle parking, but we need to avoid what I might call techno-utopianism, but also techno-fatalism. I do not personally think that e-scooters will be a game changer for our villages, towns and cities. They will be of some utility but I do not see evidence that dissuades me that cycling, including e-bikes, will be the machines that revolutionise transport.
The bicycle is the paragon of efficiency. Humans are moderately efficient from an energy perspective when walking, but when cycling, they are more efficient than any other animal on earth. Electric bikes are wonderful because they augment human efficiency to make journeys of 10 km to 30 km possible, even for those of us who are not physically fit.
E-scooters may not be revolutionary, but neither are they a lethal scourge that must be regulated like a deadly weapon, as I have heard some Deputies suggest. The provisions in this Bill for personal powered transporters are sensible - a weight limit of 55 kg and a maximum speed of 25 km/h. These numbers are important because of the physics. The kinetic energy is proportional to the mass and the square of the speed.
We effectively have three categories on our roads: those on foot and in wheelchairs and buggies; those on bikes and scooters; and vehicles. Where possible, we should separate all three but where there is mixing, we need to regulate speed to make sure the most vulnerable are protected.
E-scooters fit neatly into the category already occupied by bikes. What is proposed is sensible and proportionate. What we need to do is reallocate road space for bikes for the intermediate modes of cycling and scooting and get cars out of our villages, towns and cities.
I will make a small point about the power rating for electric bikes. There has been some confusion between peak and continuous power ratings, especially for cargo bikes. To clarify, many e-bikes and e-cargo bikes are advertised with their peak power rating, which can be 600 W, 700 W or 800 W. That number is simply the maximum instantaneous power that the battery, electrical system and motor can output on its power curve. I want to highlight that the legislation refers to continuous power, not peak power. The continuous power is the maximum power that can be outputted consistently and safely without overheating. The majority of e-bikes sold in the EU are within this limit of 250 W continuous power even if they are advertised with a peak power that is higher than this. The confusion is unfortunate but I particularly want to reassure people who have already bought e-bikes that conform to EU regulations that this legislation merely restates those power regulations.
Scramblers are an issue in many estates in Limerick. They have been the cause of considerable stress for residents. It is not only the fact that they make the roads in estates incredibly dangerous; it is also the screaming noise that reverberates around, preventing people from sleeping and generally enjoying their homes and their neighbourhoods. It has been frustrating for residents to feel that gardaí were powerless to stop and seize vehicles. The increased powers that will be available to gardaí will allow them to stop and seize scramblers and quad bikes even if they are not in a public place. I very much welcome these provisions.
I welcome the provision to bring fines and penalties issued by traffic wardens in line with those issued by gardaí. We have significant challenges in the enforcement of road traffic legislation in this country. I pay tribute to traffic wardens. Their job is a thankless and difficult one, but it is a vital job to keep our roads and streets safe for all.
While I am addressing the issue of road traffic law enforcement, I want to address one issue that I believe to be a scourge on our streets, that is, the issue of footpath parking. I accept that people may not fully appreciate the consequences of parking on the footpath but it is one of the most antisocial things a person can do on the street to restrict the movement of buggies and people in wheelchairs - people who are most deserving of free movement - is despicable. Following representations from me and Deputy Matthews, the Road Safety Authority carried out a campaign this year to remind people not to park on footpaths. I hope it had some effect. I hope that traffic wardens working for the local authorities can help to address this issue and I hope that provisions in this Bill can help the efficiency of the administration of these penalties.
We face a significant cultural challenge in driving and parking and the enforcement of road traffic law. I believe we need to examine seriously how we can encourage and compel local authorities and the Garda to enforce safe streets for all. Public information campaigns, as I mentioned, are important, but we ultimately need to make sure the law is enforced. In many local authority areas, it is acceptable to park on footpaths, drive in cycle lanes and block bus stops. This behaviour affects the most vulnerable and we as a State need to ensure that local authorities and the Garda direct sufficient resources to this issue. I would welcome debate and discussion about how we can do this, through amendment of this Bill or other means.
Finally, I want to address one element of this Bill that is not yet incorporated but that the Minister has indicated will be facilitated by means of an amendment.
I believe experimental traffic orders would be a useful initiative to tackle a real problem, that is, the delays in implementing road traffic infrastructure. We have got to a stage where making it safe for children to cycle to school or for people to cycle to work gets tied up in court appeals before a single bollard is screwed into the road. I have seen debates around the country get extremely heated and there has been irresponsible scaremongering about making our roads and streets safer for vulnerable road users. We have to reallocate our road space to make walking and cycling safe for all without endless, interminable culture wars that seek to lock in an inexorable rise in car dominance and that prevent even trial measures from being implemented.
We have not seen the detail of what the Minister will propose but it is useful to reflect on the system in the UK where experimental traffic orders avoid the pitched battles of a public consultation and endless debate about what road space reallocation might look like, and seek to make the trial and the consultation the same thing. Briefly, a reallocation of road space such as the introduction of segregated cycle lanes or other traffic control measures such as one-way restrictions are introduced and then the consultation starts about how well the measure is working. Members of the public and interested parties can object within six months of the introduction of the trial. The trial must be either retained or removed within 18 months. To me, this is a much better way of seeing the effect of measures to make streets more sustainable because it allows people to see how the streets work. We simply must move beyond divisive battles about how we use our streets. This type of trialling has been shown to be effective in the UK and I look forward to the Minister's proposals on this for this Bill.