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Japan e-scooter startups campaign to cut regulations

Players lobby Tokyo to ease up while safety concerns mount in Asia

TOKYO -- Japanese startups want to ease the country's curbs on the use of electric scooters, hoping to spur use of the vehicles even as safety concerns grow in other parts of Asia.

Speedy, easy-to-learn and eco-friendly, the simple contraptions have caught on across the globe, spawning a welter of businesses allowing city users to rent e-scooters for short errands. Asia is no exception, with sharing services springing up across the region, including one launched by Singapore ride-hailing giant Grab.

Governments are watching closely and sometimes moving to restrict the things' use, with South Korea being the latest to ban e-scooters on sidewalks, beginning next month.

Japan so far has witnessed little takeup of e-scooters because heavy regulation restricts them to roads and requires them to be taxed and insured. Classified as "motorized bicycles," e-scooters must have dual brakes, rearview mirrors and turn signals. Users need helmets and driver's licenses on public roads.

"The current law stipulates the structure of electric devices in detail [and] prevents them from being widely used in everyday life," said Teizo Narumi, chief executive officer of Glafit, a startup that produces personal mobility vehicles, including e-scooters.

Governments in Asia are paying attention to safety concerns over e-scooters, with South Korea banning them on sidewalks beginning next month.   © AFP/Jiji

Narumi was speaking this month at a news conference at the congressional building where Japan's parliament members have their offices. "We would like to seek some support from the Diet members" to change the laws in about three years, Narumi added.

Glafit is one of six members of the Japan Electronic Mobility Promotion Association, a business lobby established in September for startups that make and sell e-scooters and other personal mobility devices.

"Most countries let users enjoy e-scooters without helmets and licenses. ... Japanese regulations are severe," said a representative from Bellwood, another member of the association.

However, the association is critical of the rising number of companies that are selling or sharing e-scooters without meeting the security standards, urging them to stick to the law until it can be amended.

Taro Yamada, a member of the upper house and Liberal Democratic Party who participated in the presser, responded to the request with forward-looking comments: "Japan should surely lift the ban [on e-scooter rides] looking at global trends."

After winning government approval, three e-scooter sharing startups in October launched limited services that make use of bicycle lanes in cities, including Tokyo and Fukuoka. The companies will run the pilot programs until March 2021 and provide feedback to the authorities in the first half of next year.

Luup, one of the three companies, said: "Micro mobility is increasingly attracting attention as a means to avoid infection risks of the new coronavirus. [...] We would like to make full use of this demonstration to expand such devices [in Japan.]"

Boston Consulting Group said last year that by 2025 the global e-scooter sharing market will reach about $40 billion to $50 billion, or nearly 15% of the size of the market for automotive-based on-demand mobility for that year, according to their calculations.

Elsewhere in Asia, safety risks are mounting. The South Korean government plans to prohibit the use of e-scooters on sidewalks and only allow them on bicycle paths or the curbside lane on roads beginning Dec. 10. Personal mobility device-related accidents have spiked in recent years. Last month, a high school student who was riding a scooter in Incheon died after being injured in a collision with a taxi.

In Southeast Asian cities, these scooters have become popular through U.S.-based Lime, Grab and other sharing services as a means to avoid traffic congestion.

An accident in November 2019, when two GrabWheels riders were killed in a collision with a car in Jakarta, the first fatal incident involving the e-scooters, prompted the company to temporarily reduce their availability in most parts of the capital. Local authorities soon banned scooter riders from roads, including bicycle lanes.

The Indonesian government in June issued regulations setting speed limits and a minimum age requirement for riders, who can now use GrabWheels in bicycle lanes.

Singapore last November banned e-scooters from footpaths, two months after a fatal crash involving a cyclist. The ban was extended to cover other motorized personal mobility devices, which can still use bicycle paths.

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