The John Griff Column: Have I adopted the future – and does it work?
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I’ve generally considered myself to be a pretty early adopter of new technology. I’ve always had a policy of relying on my own kit when going to record someone for the radio. During the pandemic the policy proved to be priceless – for three years I worked from a home built garden studio, surrounded by equipment amassed over time, working to professional standards. Most of my equipment is replaced only as needed – or by invention if I can see the cost being justified.
Last week though, I became a very late adopter, following in the tyre tracks of countless people and their metropolitan journeys. Millions around Europe and across the county have gone before me, and seemingly thrived, while I hung back, unconvinced. No, I’m not talking about electric cars, although I am talking about electric vehicles.
I’ve become part of the Voi community.
Extended until May of this year at least, and across the county by both unitaries, the personal mobility trial has been running since 2020. Having watched the scooters in Northampton, France and Spain, my first thought was that they were a blight on our roads, an easy target for vandalism and too easily ridden downright dangerously on road and pavement alike. Capable of 20 kilometres per hour, the salmon pink two wheelers looked like becoming personal transports to Accident & Emergency for user and pedestrian alike. At work I interviewed a number of Voi representatives and put to them some of the criticisms that had been voiced elsewhere and written within these pages. Far from getting defensively corporate though, the company’s responses seemed measured, considered, and, above all, credible. Had they heard it all before?
Last week I needed to be somewhere. I’d dropped my car into the garage for service and had a business meeting to get to in the town centre. How to get from one location to the other and back? Waiting for a bus seemed like a waste of time and a taxi a waste of money. Preparing to walk, I noticed a salmon pink scooter a few paces away, it’s green flashing LED inviting me to step aboard. Why not, I mused. A couple of minutes later I had not only downloaded the app and registered myself as a user (probably at the upper end of Voi’s demographic for age) but had also approached my steed.
Getting up, close and personal with a Voi scooter for the first time is quite the experience. The only legal electric scooter on His Majesty’s roads (which gets users the dispensation to do what others may not during the life of the trial), riders are obliged to have a current car licence, be over a certain age and have access to a smartphone with which to pay for their journeys. And that’s the point – you never own the scooter, you merely rent it for a one-way trip, before parking up, taking a photo which accords with the scooter’s own onboard GPS tracker that you’ve stopped and are done with that particular machine. The scooter itself feels potent, weighty and purposeful. Like a motorbike it’s got brakes and a brake light, indicators and, somewhere to put your phone if you’re going to be using sat-nav. My machine had clearly been given a hard life and dropped so many times that the phone bracket had been smashed off. Pluckily though, it professed itself ready to carry me wherever it’s 42% of electric charge and my desires wanted to take me. So off we went. Or rather, we didn’t.
I had NEVER ridden any kind of scooter up to this point. Pushbikes, yes. Jetskis, yes. Snowboards – once. But a kick scooter – powered or otherwise – meant fresh mobility to me. When I pressed the small throttle lever and stepped aboard, I expected to go somewhere with style and elan. No. The scooter stayed precisely where it was and I hopped off again for fear of falling into the gutter - not the most auspicious of starts. Pretty soon though I got the hang of pushing off to get the thing rolling whilst also pressing the throttle lever to get the motor going. THEN, off we went.
Travelling by Voi was not only quite a novelty, but also quite unremarkable. Most of my time was spent scanning the road for potholes, other road users and pedestrians. I did wonder if I would wobble along the road but it’s a bit like using a jetski – more throttle gives you more stability, allowing you to concentrate better on the road ahead. I’d set my machine for lower power for my first trip, limiting it to a mere 15 kilometres per hour, rather than the full, eye-watering 20. The handlebars were sufficiently wide and the grips sufficiently large to give good control, and the brakes, when needed, were sufficiently efficient. Interestingly, nobody took the slightest notice of my progress as I thundered silently up the Billing Road, over the lights and then down Hazelwood Road towards my destination. Arriving way ahead of my meeting time, I paused to consider what I had just done, say a small prayer of thanks, and go and get a coffee. Millions of cups must have been sold on this premise – good for the global bean economy.
Meeting over, the garage rang to say that my car was ready. I was already itching to use a scooter again, so after being directed to one by the app, I climbed aboard and retraced my journey. The ride is spine-jarringly harsh (mostly down to the state of the roads) and I’m sure that rear suspension would be appreciated, but overall, the scooter performed as expected and we parted company as friends. They say that there are no bad dogs – only bad owners. I’m learning to think that the same might be true with rentable electric scooters. In responsible hands, all vehicles should be safe – why not electric scooters too?