UCL Research Domains


Together We Create: Series 2, Episode 4

E-scooters and the transport related social exclusion

E-scooters provoke a 'Marmite' love or hate response in many of us. Still being piloted across UK cities, they straddle an uncertain legislative space, with concerns around safety not far from the headlines. Yet there are other important questions raised by this still-emergent form of transport.  

In this episode, we speak with Dr Daniel Oviedo about the multifaceted dimensions of transport-related social exclusion: from affordability, to fear, discrimination and more. We discuss the conditions that may allow or prohibit people from using E-scooters – a form of transport important to social development, connection, and Daniel argues wellbeing. We explore how working with researchers from sociology, behaviour change, sustainable transport and industrial engineering – and various stakeholders with local authorities, TFL, and Innovate UK, helped to conceptualise a more inclusive policy approach for E-scooters.  

Daniel Oviedo is an Associate Professor at UCL’s Bartlett Development and Planning Unit. He specialises in the social, economic, and spatial analysis of inequalities related to urban transport and policy evaluation, with projects situated across Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as here in the UK.  


Lili Golmohammadi, Daniel Oviedo Hernandez 

Lili Golmohammadi  00:12 

Hello and welcome to Together We Create a podcast about collaborative social research. My name is Lili Golmohammadi, and I'm a collaborative researcher working across design, technology, and social research at UCL. In each episode, I'll be talking to an academic at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with researchers outside of their own discipline and hearing about them and their research as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach.  

Lili Golmohammadi  00:47 

In this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Daniel Oviedo, an Associate Professor at UCL's Bartlett Development and Planning Unit. Daniel trained in Colombia as a civil engineer and came to UCL in 2013. As a researcher and doctoral student, he has over 12 years research and teaching experience, and specialises in the social, economic and spatial analysis of inequalities related to urban transport and policy evaluation with projects situated across Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as here in the UK.  

Lili Golmohammadi  01:17 

Daniel, so I understand that as a civil engineer, your interest in collaborative research was sparked during your training in Colombia. Can you tell us about that experience? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  01:26 

Correct. I'd like to call myself a "civilised engineer". Because my training was very technical. And my initial sort of approach to transport was from that perspective, right? Looking at surveys, making models trying to do something that I see increasingly how impossible it is, which is simulating human behavior, right, and how we use transport. So in one of my earliest works, which actually has an interesting backstory, because it was my first approach to UCL, I was working as part of the local team in Colombia for a UCL led project funded by the ESRC, which was actually led by what's not what where I now call home, which is the DPU here in the Bartlett, and who then later became my, my supervisor for the PhD, which is Professor Julio Davila. He was in the project and the project was it had a simple premise, you might have heard about aerial cable cars, I mean, you only need to go to North Greenwich here to see one of those. But those became very famous, after they were tested in Medellin, a in famous city in Colombia, especially in the 90s, because of drug violence, and so on. And the project was trying to understand whether or not that intervention, which was pure infrastructure, pure transport, like what engineers tend to concentrate on was having any effects on the local population and on social development and well being. And I was part of the team in Bogota, that was looking at the exact opposite case of the counterfactual for that, which was a very similar neighborhood, hillier, probably, and perhaps more deprived where a cable car was promised but never delivered. Right? So, again, our approach was very traditional, we were supposed to look at data to look at maps, perhaps a few photographs, and that was it. But very wisely, I see now that the leader of the team in the civil engineering department where I was working in decided to involve an anthropologist and a sociologist to understand better sort of the depth of of these relationships of people between transport poverty and their expectations about infrastructure. So my first approach is doing science was through them, through Diana Bocarejo and Maria Alvarez, who, in a meeting, said, well, guys, we need to go to Cazuca which is this municipality where we were studying and talk to people. So we're going on the weekend, also, I mean, who wants to go? And it was 10 people, eight of us were engineers. And like, this the only timid hand that was raised. And as well, and I'm going, then it just became something that I continued doing, and I was getting more and more excited about. 

Lili Golmohammadi  04:16 

And what was the value of leaving the office and talking to people on the ground?  

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  04:20 

Well, there are a few added values, but for me that it was the shock of seeing that reality. I think there is a detachment that comes alongside looking at things on a map or reducing people to statistics, right? Like you know, that there must be a problem there because people are taking an hour an hour and a half commuting, but it's not the same. When you are parked in a minibus when you are trying to get space into a pickup truck that became an illegal taxi. Or you have to walk on hills that have unpaved roads and don't have really good, good access, right and seeing the conditions in which people are leaving. It's still, I mean, it was such a shock, and then such a fascination. And it was so inspiring that that then became sort of what I wanted to keep looking at from there on. So I owe a lot to that not only that project, but that interaction and it was completely, I wouldn't say random, but it came naturally.  

Lili Golmohammadi  05:29 

What other experiences have shaped your approach to the social, economic and spatial analysis of urban transport inequalities? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  05:37 

I think that that experience really was the kickoff for everything that I've done. And I owe a lot of my career to that specific case, not only because that's where I came back to do my PhD, but because that's what I started to be exposed to some of these theories about social inclusion, about transport, disadvantaged about poverty, and the very close relationship that mobility has with social conditions. So the social development and well being. I came back a couple of years later, in 2013, to do my PhD fieldwork to that same municipality, I expanded the reach of our, of our initial study in my PhD and I have many, many anecdotes, but perhaps the the one that I can remember the most, which was another eye opener for me, was a conversation with a gang leader. I use the framework of social exclusion but one of the dimensions was security, and it's very interconnected with crime. And what I wanted to understand was, Okay, why don't people walk this way, which is the shortest route, right? What the engineer would say. So I was talking with some of the community leaders, and they said, Well, you need to talk to this guy. Okay, I'm going to talk to this guy. But they didn't say who the guy was. So I ended up sitting outside of his house, drinking a beer. And he telling me, well, people don't come here, because they're not part of our neighborhood. And they disrupt trade, they disrupt the business, and we have rival gangs that are leaving in and he had just this very clear idea of where his territory ended and the other guys began, right? and that they really had a very clear understanding of who belonged to each group. And that, of course, had a spillover effect on everyone else's mobility.  

Lili Golmohammadi  07:31 

And again, this is the kind of information that would not have shown up had you not got up at 7am, to go down to the neighborhoods and speak to people. 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  07:39 

Definitely. And one of the things that that came out of that was very much connected with the with the role of informal transport, because the public authorities and this is, of course, not to say that it's not imperative that public authorities bring public transport good quality to these neighborhoods. But what the guy was telling me is, look, we don't... we respect very much the people that are driving those trucks and those taxis, and those mini buses, because we grew up with them. Right? They're part of our community. But if some stranger comes driving a boss, who is an employee of the government, right, that there was sort of those hints at those complex interactions, social interactions, and that's something that I have carried on forward to other studies into all my work, not only late in Latin America, but then Sub Saharan Africa, and even here in the UK. 

Lili Golmohammadi  08:35 

Yeah. So that that takes us to one of your more recent projects here in the UK. So through your research, you've worked to, as you've already indicated, worked to develop a framework which connects the social and collaborative focus of your work. And can you say something about that framework and its dimensions and the social aspects it brings to what, as you said, might primarily be approached as a planning issue? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  09:03 

Yeah. So what we're talking about here is the the concept of transport related social exclusion, which is something that I applied in my PhD and interestingly, and just to show, how everything goes full circle was first developed, at least the authors that I use, as the basis for the framework was developed for London, it was about social exclusion in London related to transport and it looks at seven dimensions, which now we have expanded to eight or nine depending on the on the, on the context and the case, that cover from geography and time to the distribution of, of key facilities, right of hospitals of schools, but also of transport itself as a facility right. And then come other dimensions that perhaps were not as salient in Global North context as London, such as economic and affordability of of transport, fear and fear was one of those things which is which relates to my to my anecdote about this this gang lead. And fear has so many dimensions linked to transport, which we usually don't think about an everyday basis unless you're living, right. There's the fear of violence, there's the fear of crime, which is very much present in a reality in Latin American cities. But it's also the fear of sexual violence while harassment of feeling comfortable on public transport. And then we added one dimension, which was part of of these recent project that I had here in the UK, which was about discrimination. And discrimination plays a significant role because people carry certain stereotypes that whether we recognise it or not, are affecting the way that we relate to each other in the transport network. 

Lili Golmohammadi  10:47 

So yeah, let's come to your e-scooters project and unpack that further, so you've spoken about how divisive and polarising e scooters are, I think you've called them a Marmite love or hate mode of transport. And you were awarded and UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain seed funding for a project called Are e-scooters contributing to transport related social exclusion? Mapping supply practices in London's micro mobility pilot. So can you say something now about the focus and aim of the project and why you wanted to look at e-scooters in particular? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  11:23 

Well, as with everything I think, most social researchers do, we react to what we see in our daily lives in the experiences and in I was fascinated by these little things that looked like toys that started emerging on the streets. I mean, during the pandemic, also, right, it was, it was a moment in which everything was disrupted. Everything was transitioning to what we are seeing today. And then these things just appeared. And then things started to come back to normal. I was one of those people that was trying to avoid getting in crowded spaces or use public transport. So I started using them, when I saw the opportunity to, to have a seed fund for testing some of these ideas in that mode of transport. And thinking about the fact that in 2001, these guys, Church, Frost and Sullivan came up with the social exclusion framework for transport in London, I said, well it's about time, right? It's about 20 years later? Why not? Why not try it again, with something that is completely new, which is e-scooters in London?  

Lili Golmohammadi  12:02 

So you use for this project, survey and workshop based methodology with both users and non users of e-skaters to probe people's perspectives and concerns. It was interesting, because there weren't just questions about, you know, like road safety, but also about, as you said, their accessible-accessibility, availability, whether they might reduce the chance of being sexually harassed, whether the government should ease rules for them, make them the same as for bicycles. And then you related this to participants, social and organisational positions. What did you find? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  13:04 

Well, it was a complex research, perhaps more complex than I was expecting. So we started, yes, with with the survey with some interviews, and we had two participatory workshops in which we were involving people that were directly or indirectly involved in shaping up the pilot, believe it or not, those scooters that we see outside are still part of a pilot project of a pilot program. And there were many unanswered questions. So we got these people. I remember that, in that first workshop, where we discuss what were the principles for inclusive micro mobility and inclusive scooters. And we came up together, which was very nice, because we had people from industry. So we had representatives from these big consultancies are people from TfL people from different local authorities, as well as people from the FT and those who are, for example, in Innovate UK, supporting innovation and technology and all the startups that want to get into the space, which is not just e-scooters, but other personal technologies, but we managed to agree on an aim of what we need to think about is fairness. Right, and some principles of of equity of participation of safety. And something that was very interesting, and it kind of goes a bit in in opposition to the way that things have been managed. It was flexibility. Right? Okay. And what we've seen in the process of implementing these pilots is that they're trying to make more and more rigid and very prescribed ways of doing things, right. And then there was something else that that came out very strongly and is we need to learn to recognize each other, right, both users and non users, which is why our survey was looking at both and learning to share the space that was sort of one of those strategies, that as part of these two workshops came across in that part of recognition was about diversity and intersectionality. And understanding that there are different conditions that may or might not enable you to use the scooters and things that perhaps are not enshrined in regulation or thought about in operational plans from the operators is that what happens if you have a big buggy? Right? Would you feel comfortable? Do you feel safe riding an e-scooter and all the diverse conditions like you can still see in both in our statistics and the statistics from the operators, that the majority of users are men of a certain age, and not necessarily young men, actually, for the sharing scooters, they're men between over 25 and below 40. who perhaps have that income and enjoy sort of the rush of using an e-scooter?  

Lili Golmohammadi  15:53 

I saw that  well, that was one of the questions "riding e-scooters makes people feel happy, free and more independent." And then that actually made me want to try them. And I haven't had the chance yet, but it's on my mind. I want to I want to have a go because I was like, Oh, I hadn't really thought about that. I guess you do feel free and happy. Maybe what did your respondents say?  

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  16:14 

Well, you'll be happy to hear we're actually finishing a paper which for publication, which is called More Than a Joyride. And actually, what we find is that for many people who are using the scooter share the scooters is one of the main purposes that came across was just for the fun of it, right? And normally, when we plan transport, we say well, transport is something that is a derived demand, right? You traveled not for the sake of travel. But because you need to go to work or you need to go to university, etc. Well, not in this case, there is many people up at least 20 25% of our respondents that say, Well, I ride it just to go around right now for a few minutes. It doesn't need to be a very long trip, however, we started seeing some differences. And I want to address this privately scooter issue because I believe I mean, of course the literature grows very rapidly. So I'm sure that there as we speak in more studies being published, but we were sort of the first rigorous study that was looking at both private and, and public. And we have got a lot of criticism, because our private respondents, of course, might have a bias of being those who are more engaged, right, because you're doing something illegal. So it's hard for someone, even if it's an anonymous study to say I'm doing something illegal, but what we found is that users of private scooters, were using them more for commuting, they were replacing the bus, they were replacing a public transport that perhaps was not or is not meeting their needs, whilst the the shared e-scooter users were doing it more for the fun, more to go to meet friends more to ride them at night, not necessarily I mean, they weren't there is of course, a portion that that uses them for for the regular commuting purposes. But that was sort of not the predominant trend that we started seeing. And then we asked people about their satisfaction with travel, which is a scale that has been used in in different studies. And what we find is that, interestingly, the the private e-scooter users tend to score higher in that travel satisfaction, even though they're very utilitarian in their use. And then those who have a high score of the scooters, the shared e-scooters, were those that were using them for the fun of it. 

Lili Golmohammadi  18:30 

So the team on this project came from three UCL faculties, you had development planning, behavior change and sustainable transport. And then as you said, you also worked with Innovate UK's micro mobility forum network and two other non academic partners. So why would you say that the project needed that specific interdisciplinary mix? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  18:50 

Well, I think we need more civilised engineers.  Professor Helena Titheridge in Civil Engineering, is one of my favorites of those. And she was she was one of my supervisors for the PhD. So we've been working together for a while. And I think her view is very pragmatic, right. And we needed to understand we need to remain connected to that more technical side of the whole problem without necessarily forgetting about the social part. So she was a key ingredient in doing that, and I have to admit that the the more I transition towards a civilised engineer, become more civilised and less engineer. So I needed that, that additional perspective. And then Dr. Jo Hale, who is in the in the Center for Behavior Change, she had these fantastic ideas about how to engage with the stakeholders. So those very neat things, and you can probably consult them in our website, which became the policy brief about the principles and the scales of inclusion. And sort of who needs needed to be part of this conversation came from the world of the Center for Behavior Change system, and then we had the chance of involving many young researchers at different stages of their career but also have different backgrounds. So we had an industrial engineer and statistician who was working on this, we had one of Helena's students. And we also had two of our PhD students DPU who are working on things that are relatively unrelated to transport. And we also had the opportunity to supervise, as of today already, four masters students who did their dissertations with our data. So we managed to get very different perspectives from very different people and backgrounds. 

Lili Golmohammadi  20:25 

So you’ve spoken about quite a bit about some of the findings, and could you just say something a bit more about what insights the multidisciplinary aspects of the project offered for understanding and managing this still emerging form of transport and its feature? 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  20:40 

I think the most important lesson of this experience in many of the projects that that we've done in the past is leaning on each other's strengths. And that was very interesting for me, because while some of us were very much engaged in discussions about how do we frame this, how do we conceptualise this in a way that makes sense in a way that we can design an interesting instrument? Other colleagues were looking at how do we make that survey interesting, and I hope you found it interesting. And I found it pretty, to be honest, it's probably one of the prettiest - one of the prettiest surveys that we've done. They came up with this with these cartoons, I don't know where they found them, really. But it was nice, it was sort of in bites. It was a long survey. So you need to keep your respondent engaged, and then some other not only involving or disciplines, but involving our colleagues. So we ended up collaborating as well with a colleague in Newcastle University. And she said, I love this, give me the survey, I will just distribute in Newcastle. So now we have a sample from Newcastle to compare with what we find in London. But this wouldn't have been possible if we didn't have a huge team of sociologists, of engineers, of statisticians and mathematicians, as well as people that have a background in government. So one of our students with the support of Jo, she came into the project, and she had very interesting ideas about how to ask the questions to the stakeholders, right, because she had worked before in politics. So it that sensitivity, right, it's it's a difficult topic, because it's a regulation that was very much being shaped as we were doing our research. And of course, there were things that and you will still hear them from from people who are who were at the time government, like that's something that we're still discussing. So we cannot bring into this forum right now, especially the recording. So those those sensitivities, I think, is what that collaborative work brought into the project. 

Lili Golmohammadi  22:39 

So that leads us nicely to my final set of questions, which is about advice for social researchers who want to collaborate with engineers, and transport scholars and others. So you've kind of started to lay that out a bit. But what qualities and skills have helped you to move between the different research perspectives that are central to your collaborations?  

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  23:04 

I'm not sure if it's a skill, but curiosity has always been something very useful for me. But in terms of advice, I would say, it's always good to, to expose yourself to other forums. And I think transport has that advantage, right? Because you can talk about transport from in a geography conference, you can talk about transport in a civil engineering conference, you can talk about transport in public government conference, like, or a health conference. So exposing yourself to all these different forums on the topic that we're interested in. Now, at the end, social researchers, we're looking at human behavior. And I'm sure that there are many different entry points to that. But it's a bit looking outside of your regulars of your regular audience. That would be one thing. And the other big piece of advice, which comes specially, I mean, of course, the collaborative social sciences, the main grant was very useful for us. But then we continue that conversation through our interaction with Innovate UK, who actually came up later with more funding for the project. So never be afraid to ask. I think one of the things I've learned is that who doesn't ask doesn't get, and you have to be ready for no’s - with academics, we have to develop a thick skin because our papers get rejected all the time, at least mine do. So I have to keep trying. Right? And that keep trying translates then to the funding. So I'm not. We are not infallible, and I have never had a grant, a substantial grant that didn't have two or three versions and didn't need to wait two or three years to actually get the funding. So it's about not not giving up on your ideas. I think that will be my final piece of advice. 

Lili Golmohammadi  24:50 

Great. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been really good talking to you. 

Daniel Oviedo Hernandez  24:56 

It's been lovely. Thank you very much again for having me on 

Lili Golmohammadi  25:02 

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by myself Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Daniel Oviedo Hernandez. If you want to find out more about his research or the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain.