Meet the Academic championing electric scooters for last mile travel

Loughborough University academic Yasir Ali is exploring the potential for a greater uptake of electric scooters in India after securing a placement on the Researchers in Residence programme with Connected Places Catapult.

Many people have a binary view of electric scooters: they are either a convenient means of travelling short distances, or a dangerous nuisance. But there’s a third cohort who may be persuaded to try an e-scooter out, despite harbouring reservations. Yasir Ali is among them.

The transport lecturer and civil engineer from Loughborough University has just begun an 18-month study to investigate the scope for increasing micro-mobility use in India. He is confident that e-scooters can deliver great benefits in reducing congestion and improving the environment in urban areas, but has safety concerns.

“To be honest, I’ve never used one.” says Yasir. “I live five minutes from Loughborough University and only drive a car for shopping or taking the family on days out; but I do want to try.

Electric scooters promise to be a good alternative for short journeys of up to three, maybe five miles – but only if they are ridden sensibly and safely.”

He recalls an incident shortly after moving to Loughborough while waiting for a bus in the town centre, with his daughter on his shoulders, and an e-scooter passed by a little too close at speed on the footpath. More recently, he was alarmed to see an adult carrying a baby on a private e-scooter without wearing a helmet.

Electric scooters were big news in the UK several years ago after the Government launched a trial of hire schemes in several cities and larger towns. Until recently, one trial took place in Loughborough.

Now scooters are catching on in several South Asian countries including India. “E-scooters represent a growing trend in metropolitan cities like New Delhi and Mumbai,” says Yasir.

“I’m keen to understand how people perceive this form of micro-mobility for first and last mile journeys, if they are willing to use an e-scooter, and what factors either hinder or motivate them to ride one.”

As with the UK, people in India will be divided on the subject of e-scooters. But there may be an extra concern in some communities that goes beyond safety: that of perceived status. “In the UK, walking short distances rather than driving is considered good practice; but in India walking is sometimes thought of as what only poor people do,” Yasir explains. “Some people buying milk might drive their vehicle to the shop, even if it’s only 50 metres away. I want to see whether this issue of status extends to people’s perceptions about electric micro-mobility.”

If negative perceptions persist, Yasir is keen to see whether more people could be persuaded that choosing to scoot rather than drive a car is not a sign of their financial or social standing; rather that it demonstrates environmental awareness, and that collective transport choices made now could have an impact on future generations.

After first understanding the psychological obstacles to e-scooter use, Yasir is keen to consider the impact that infrastructure – such as dedicated scooter lanes or the location of docking stations – might have on usage, as well as the wearing of protective helmets (popular in some parts of the world, but not the UK). Above all, if a service was launched, how many people would use it?

“To start with, the focus of my research will be office workers, who tend to use public transport if they are in a big city, or cars if they are in a town; asking them to complete surveys and be interviewed. I also want to show that micro-mobility can be effective to go between your home and the train station.”

Yasir also hopes to explore whether there is potential for the UK to export expertise around electric micro-mobility to India.

Taking a steer from the top

Yasir first heard about Connected Places Catapult after reading a LinkedIn post from the Prime Minister just over a year ago, where Rishi Sunak encouraged start-up companies to apply for funding through the Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme.

“I started following the Catapult online, discovered what they do and saw an article about the Researchers in Residence opportunity. It was looking for academics who were interested in environmental sustainability, and specifically about electric micro-mobility in India, so decided to put myself forward.

“Working with Connected Places Catapult has helped me to better understand UK transport policy around congestion management, traffic flow, safety and the environment – and compare it to India.” Output from his research will also feed into work the Catapult is doing with electric micro mobility in India.

A lifelong love of study

Yasir was born in rural Pakistan; the eldest of four children. His father is a civil engineer and mother an academic, and they were keen for their children to get a good education. “My father only achieved a technical diploma as he did not have the money to try for a bachelor’s degree. He wanted his first child to study engineering, and I fulfilled his dream by attending the same university that he wanted to go to.”

After his degree, Yasir worked as a site engineer on a project with the Asian Development Bank to rehabilitate rural roads in Pakistan damaged by floods. He wanted to study a Masters degree, so decided to make use of his recent experience of highway construction; opting for a transport engineering course at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad.

“My focus had been on building roads, but I got to see how people were travelling too. In rural areas of Pakistan, people are sometimes overloaded onto vehicles, and I was keen to understand if the situation could be improved. The trigger for me was watching a young child running after a vehicle to get aboard and find somewhere to stand, not even sit.”

During his Masters he spoke to professors returning from countries including America who had seen how transport fared elsewhere. On completing his course, Yasir decided to move first to Belgium to begin a PhD in traffic flow management; later relocating to Australia and switching his studies to focus on connected and autonomous vehicles at the University of Queensland.

While completing his Doctorate in 2020, he secured a job with the University of Sydney as a research fellow. But when the Covid pandemic hit, his contract was not extended. So he moved to Queensland to join Queensland University of Technology as a postdoctoral researcher to focus on making highways safer and run more efficiently.

One project involved investigating how a change in traffic signal phasing at junctions in the Australian city of Cairns had an impact on traffic flow and road safety. Sometimes access across an adjacent carriageway was ‘permissive’ whereby drivers were expected to find a gap in traffic and proceed with caution; other times a junction was ‘protected’ with signals.

“We trailed a change for three months, analysed video data to evaluate it, and I designed a new strategy which has been implemented throughout Northern Queensland,” he says. “Obtaining positive results in terms of lower collision rates, this strategy has now been adopted throughout Queensland.”

Settling in Loughborough

After seven years in Australia, he decided to come to the UK to work at Loughborough University, where one of its former professors Mohammed Quddus was a globally recognised specialist in intelligent transport systems; an area Yasir was keen to explore further.

“Vehicle technology can offer collision warnings, technology on the street can make the lights turn green for public transport, and other systems can help reduce pollution. What I’m asking now is if safety, transport efficiency and the environment can be successfully brought together.”

Yasir’s drive as a researcher has been shaped by personal experiences, not least when his younger brother was involved in a car accident where someone lost their life. “If research is investigating something new, it should be put into practice,” he says. “It was a real eye opener when I came to the UK to see just how much that happened. If some of what I say is put into practice – to help improve micro-mobility or save lives on the road – I would consider that a success.

“Innovation is the key to improve what is not working. If we just stick with the status quo, we will just continue as we are.”

Find out more about the Researchers in Residence programme here. To be alerted about opportunities at Connected Places Catapult, join our Academic Network.