Since Gabriel Kwok started riding an electric unicycle on Vancouver’s streets nine months ago, he estimates he’s logged about 2,000 kilometres on the briefcase-sized vehicle.
The 21-year-old Emily Carr University film student has a car to haul people or cargo, but his “wheel” is his main means of commuting to school and getting around the city.
Kwok said he has taken a couple of spills and had a close call with a truck that forced him to hop a curb, but otherwise had no issues, with police giving him a nod or a friendly wave.
That was until Kwok was stopped by the Vancouver Police Department in mid-February — and given a $598 ticket.
His experience speaks to ambiguity about the rules governing electric micro mobility vehicles including unicycles, scooters and bikes, as policymakers try to reconcile encouragement of their use, with police enforcement and disputes with other road users.
Kwok said he was riding on Vancouver’s Main Street when officers in an unmarked cruiser stopped him and ticketed him under B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act for having no insurance.
“Wherever I ride, usually I try to stick to neighborhood streets and bike lanes, but sometimes I occasionally have to get on main roads,” Kwok said. “Even then, (police) haven’t had any trouble with me.”
His initial anger and confusion over the fine soon turned to disappointment, Kwok said, but he plans to dispute the ticket. The officers who gave him the ticket were not receptive to his questions and explanations, he added.
In an email, Sgt. Steve Addison with the Vancouver Police Department said the force prefers educating people about traffic laws before issuing tickets.
“We do still have the option to issue tickets when people behave recklessly, put other road users in danger, or disrupt traffic,” Addison said. “If someone thinks they’ve been unlawfully ticketed, they should dispute their ticket in court.”
Bradley Spence, co-founder of Vancouver e-vehicle retailer Eevee’s, said he made a point to ask every police officer he encountered about traffic laws and micro mobility devices before opening the business.
“I didn’t want to open a store that is selling illegal products, and when I did my survey, every single officer thought it was really cool,” he said.
But one officer did warn him that reckless riding could net a violation ticket, and now that warning has turned into a reality for several riders, Spence said.
The province says that under B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act, small electric transport devices remain illegal on roads and sidewalks, except in a dozen communities that have allowed the use of electric kick scooters under a pilot project. They include Vancouver and other Lower Mainland cities.
The scooters must meet specifications related to power, speed, wheel size and braking.
Kelowna is also a participant city, and since launching in April 2021, the municipality has seen a “tremendous uptake” in electric mobility trips by both tourists and residents, said transportation planner Cameron Noonan.
The pilot project brought many early challenges, Noonan said, because “it was a lot of change very quickly for our community.”
“We did have challenges with things like improper riding, riding on the sidewalks and intoxicated riding and improper parking where the vehicles were blocking sidewalks,” he said. “That led us to make quite a few changes.”
Noonan said tightening the rules, coupled with education and enforcement, saw complaints about electric scooters drop 90 per cent in 2022.
He said the number of households owning e-bikes in Kelowna had increased 10 times from 2018 to 2021.
“Providing the infrastructure for these new types of vehicles to be ridden safely away from people walking and away from traffic is the ultimate solution that we’re working towards,” Noonan said.
Academics and doctors are also scrutinizing the opportunities and the safety challenges that micro mobility devices present.
Simon Fraser University sociology professor Travers, who goes by a single name, started riding an electric unicycle about four years ago.
The professor did more than 2,000 deliveries for Uber Eats on their unicycle as part of research into such devices’ use, motivated by the “legal grey area” they occupy.
For Travers, the electric unicycle has been transformative, replacing 80 per cent of car trips and improving their mental and physical health since a nagging knee injury that keeps them off conventional or even electric-assisted bicycles.
Travers has had no issues with police, but says food delivery workers who rely on micro mobility devices face risks from not only cars, but also law enforcement, as traffic rules remain unclear on exactly what’s acceptable.
“We’re at I think a really pivotal moment. We have this burgeoning sector of electric micro mobilities that allow people to move from point A to B with a lot less energy,” Travers said. “I’m 61 years old and I feel graceful again.”
Medical experts and transportation engineers say safety regulations and infrastructure are trying to catch up to the popularity of the devices.
“It is always the case that policy and regulation lags behind innovation,” said Dr. Ian Pike, director of the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit.
Pike said a combination of education, engineering and enforcement can mitigate risks associated with the vehicles while making roads safer for all.
“People have to be aware that if they are misbehaving and if they’re acting unsafely, they will be caught and they will be penalized,” he said.
Dr. Jeff Brubacher, director of the road safety and public health research lab at the University of British Columbia, said local data on injuries related to micro mobility devices is somewhat limited.
Brubacher says e-scooter riders were “vulnerable road users,” but existing research shows many who suffered injuries weren’t wearing helmets or were intoxicated.
Most injuries, he said, were minor and resulted from riders losing control.
Alex Bigazzi, a civil engineering professor at UBC, said the province needed to move quickly to update the Motor Vehicle Act “to allow a more diverse array of vehicles,” but with speed limitations.
Providing separated infrastructure to accommodate e-bikes, e-scooters and other devices is crucial, he said, because “it’s most critical that we eliminate conflicts with pedestrians.”
Electric unicycle rider Kwok said the benefits of his wheel go beyond saving on gas.
“The main benefit I’m noticing is in my mental health because it’s more fun to experience the city on a wheel than in a car for me,” he said.
Getting fined by police won’t deter him from taking to the streets.
“I don’t want this to generate fear or stop people from riding around because in my opinion it is a very useful mode of transport,” he said. “I don’t want fear of being pulled over by one cop to restrict that.”
—Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press