How sustainable are electric scooters?

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You might have started seeing more of them on streets and in parks, gliding past you with a faint electric hum. As lockdowns lift and people avoid public transport, e-scooters – stand-up, electrically powered scooters – are becoming more popular.

Rack 'em up: Lime scooters for hire outside the TraffiNZ conference in wellington this week - as part of a charm offensive in the capital.

Lime e-scooters for hire in Wellington. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Colin Peacock

The easing of lockdowns has highlighted the importance of individual, emission-free, socially distanced transport as governments try to prevent spikes in car use and pollution. But the story of e-scooters is one of both a popular tech gadget and a contentious form of transport. While they offer a seemingly fun and environmentally friendly option for short journeys, a range of questions about their safety and sustainability have emerged in the past two years.

So how did e-scooters go from risky tech novelty to a green travel solution for the coronavirus recovery? And are they really so good for the planet?

E-scooters have been available to privately buy for over a decade but many remain prohibitively expensive. It took the affordable, accessible option of shared, dockless models – which can be rented by the minute using a smartphone app – for their popularity to skyrocket. In 2018, shared e-scooter startups Bird and Lime rapidly introduced them to US cities (sometimes without permission). Soon after, the companies – along with a proliferation of other startups, including European-based Voi and Tier – began to rapidly expand across cities internationally.

Now, e-scooter sharing schemes are available in more than 100 cities, across at least 20 countries, from Chile to South Korea to New Zealand – although Europe and the US continue to dominate in terms of use. Research suggests that by 2024, 4.6 million shared e-scooters will be in operation worldwide, up from 774,000 in 2019.

But with the rise of e-scooters has been the rise of related accidents – some of them fatal. On pavements, e-scooters pose dangers to pedestrians and wheelchair users – and particularly people who are blind and partially sighted. But using the scooters on roads without sufficient infrastructure such as cycle lanes is also risky, especially due to lack of regulations. Even when not in use, e-scooters can be hazardous: most sharing services are dockless, resulting in scooters being discarded on footpaths, causing obstructions.

Regulation and legislation measures vary internationally. In many countries, including the UK, they are technically illegal, but in May, the government announced that shared e-scooter trials would be brought forward by a year and rolled out nationally, beginning this summer. Meanwhile in Jakarta, Singapore and Shanghai, e-scooters are still banned on roads and pavements entirely, while Paris has banned riding and parking them on pavements. Other cities have speed limits, restrictions on scooter numbers or rules on where they can be used and parked.

Lime e-scooters dumped on a pavement.

E-scooters can pose dangers to pedestrians and wheelchair users. Photo: 123RF

Green credentials

Safety is not the only issue, though: e-scooters have come under increasing scrutiny for their environmental impact. Although shared models are emission-free at the point of use, the process of manufacturing, moving and managing them results in greenhouse gas emissions – which increase if they have a short lifespan. Most shared e-scooters need to be collected, charged and redistributed regularly, often using fossil-fuelled vehicles.

A 2019 study by researchers at North Carolina State University, taking into account emissions produced by making and moving e-scooters, suggested they typically produce more emissions per passenger mile than a standard bus with high ridership, an electric moped, an e-bike or a regular bicycle. Such findings are echoed by research from the Lufthansa Innovation Hub ranking estimated carbon emissions of various transport types, which suggests average emissions of dockless e-scooters are higher than those of trains, buses, e-bikes, electric and hybrid cars and even petrol-powered scooters.

Such emissions can be reduced through reducing the number of trips by operational vehicles to ferry scooters around cities, using emission-free vehicles when they do so and increasing scooter lifespan. Currently, shared e-scooters are meant to last between one and two years, but due to both accidental and deliberate damage, many last much less time than that. Looking at Louisville, Kentucky, Quartz estimated the average lifespan of a Bird e-scooter was roughly 29 days. Many believe the dockless set-up is to blame. Dockless bike-share schemes were heavily criticised when “mass graveyards” of redundant bikes appeared – could e-scooters be heading the same way?

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“Those bike companies took the approach of growth at all costs, but that’s not what we do,” says Patrick Studener, vice president at Bird. “In every city we start with 100 or 200 scooters, then we scale up into the demand that we see. Day to day, we scale up and down with demand.”

E-scooters are promoted as a green alternative to short car trips, but the concern is that they replace trips by foot, bike or public transport instead. Data gathered from French cities shows that 44 percent of local e-scooter users would have walked had the scooters not been available and 30 percent would have used public transport. Only 4 percent would have used a car.

But travel habits vary across the world. In Wellington, New Zealand, 21 percent of e-scooter trips would have otherwise been made by car, with 39 percent of people using a car less as a result of the e-scooter scheme. In Chicago, 43 percent of users would have travelled by car if the scooters weren’t available (30 percent would have walked). In Portland, Oregon, 36 percent of local users would have travelled by car instead, although an even bigger percentage (45 percent) would have walked or used a bicycle – both lower-emission transport modes. However, 39 percent said they drove less since beginning to use e-scooters, suggesting positive behaviour change.

Seemingly, shared e-scooter companies are paying attention to sustainability concerns, with some introducing the use of renewable energy in operations, swappable batteries that reduce the need to move scooters away to charge, as well as electric operation vehicles and extended scooter lifespans through better design and repairs.

Bird claims its latest e-scooter model lasts for up to two years, thus reducing environmental impact. By its own admission, Bird’s first scooters lasted roughly three or four months. Lime recently promised to switch its operation vehicles to 100 percent electric by 2030, and signed a commitment with 75 international companies to push for electric vehicle rollout. “But we expect to get there much faster,” says Lime’s head of sustainability Andrew Savage. In Paris, the company has already shifted its entire vehicle fleet to electric, as well as piloting swappable batteries to gauge carbon savings.

The start-up Voi claims its service is now fully carbon-neutral, achieved through measures including swappable batteries, longer-lasting scooter design and electrification of service fleets. Voi first implemented these measures in Paris, where they were found to reduce emissions by 71 percent, according to a report from EY. Tier is working to move all its warehouses to run on green electricity by the end of 2020, as well as replace all diesel vans and have all e-scooters using swappable batteries by 2021. Tier’s operations in Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and France already run entirely on e-vehicles.

‘New normal’

Such apparent commitment to sustainability no doubt appeals to governments in the coronavirus recovery as they seek to support transport needs that adhere to social distancing while avoiding increases in polluting car use.

Although many shared e-scooters were taken out of service during lockdowns, they are slowly returning to cities, with ramped-up cleaning measures. Meanwhile, retailers have reported sales of private e-scooters increasing in places including Finland, Ireland and the UK, despite their use on public streets still being illegal in the latter two countries. Things are set to change quite extensively in the UK, though. Shared e-scooter trials were planned for 2021 in four select areas, but in response to the newly restricted capacity of public transport, were brought forward to this summer and offered nationally.

But the UK is not alone in embracing e-scooters as part of post-Covid transport strategies. In Australia, Brisbane recently decided to extend its e-scooter trial by a year, expanding provision into the suburbs as part of efforts to increase active transport in the coronavirus recovery. In Colombia, Bogotá changed its’ e-scooter regulations to allow more providers to offer their services post-lockdown, with no payment to the city. In Argentina, Buenos Aires is actively encouraging short trips to be taken by bicycles and scooters, which it says “play a fundamental role in the mobility of residents in this new scenario”.

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Rome welcomed its first shared e-scooters in May. “Rome is starting again under the banner of sustainable mobility,” said mayor Virginia Raggi of the new scheme. “During these unprecedented times, our habits have changed, and as an administration, we are promoting new mobility choices.”

The Italian government’s Covid-19 Task Force has partnered with e-scooter company Helbiz to help support socially distanced mobility across the country. “It is necessary to change the paradigm and make a Copernican revolution in the mobility industry,” says Filomena Maggino, head of the task force’s mobility delegation. “We are prioritising the wellbeing of our citizens and choosing the options that allow everyone to move without compromising sustainability. Micro-mobility solutions embody the needs for fair and sustainable mobility.” The government is also offering city residents subsidies for buying an e-scooter.

Access for all?

Research suggests e-scooters have an issue with inclusivity – and if a transport mode is not inclusive, it cannot be truly sustainable. A total of 65 percent of e-scooter users in Chicago were male, 72 percent were white and 79 percent aged 25-44. The majority of riders earned over $US75,000 – more than double the last reported US median income of $US31,000. In the French cities of Paris, Lyon and Marseille, 66 percent of local users were men and in general users were also “significantly more well-off” than the general population.

Male user dominance could result from the “tech bro” image e-scooters were initially saddled with. Other shortcomings in diversity may be due to geographical spread of scooter availability, cost and smartphone requirement. “Cities should only issue permits to e-scooter operators who aim to also serve outer-city areas that are poorly served by public transport as well as lower-income communities,” says Lucy Mahoney, who manages the walking and cycling network at C40 Cities. In its guidelines for shared micro-mobility, US transport alliance Nacto states that disadvantaged populations should be considered first priority to address longstanding structural inequities.

Some scooter companies are trying to address this. “We work to identify a particular community that could benefit from cheaper transport – typically areas that are underserved by transport currently,” says Lime’s UK policy director Alan Clarke. In the US, the Lime Access and Bird Access programmes provide discounted fares to those reliant on government financial support, and enable individuals without smartphones to use e-scooters.

In terms of physical accessibility, however, e-scooters may be more inclusive than bicycles or e-bikes, as they don’t require any pedalling. Findings from Wellington, suggest e-scooters increased mobility for people with disabilities: 13 percent of users with accessibility needs said they wouldn’t have made their most recent trip without e-scooters, and 91 percent of users with accessibility needs strongly supported the e-scooter scheme to continue.

So, are e-scooters the sustainable travel we need? “The key is for e-scooters to be one more part of a flexible, multi-modal transport system that gives people more affordable and sustainable mobility choices,” says Maruxa Cardama, secretary-general of the Slocat Partnership on Sustainable, Low-Carbon Transport.

“E-scooters can be carbon neutral, but if they do not replace more carbon-intensive modes, they will have little positive impact on urban transport decarbonisation,” explains Voi’s sustainability lead Sarah Badoux. To target a modal shift from cars, widespread presence – convenient access – is key. Lime, for instance, also partners with Uber and Google Maps so that when people plan journeys, e-scooters appear as a viable alternative to car use.

Linking in with public transport is also vital. “Research shows that the best way to get people to leave their cars at home is not improved public transport, but improved access to public transport,” says Voi’s Badoux, whose company has partnerships with public transit authorities across Europe. Marion Lagadic, a project manager at 6t, which conducted the French e-scooter surveys, agrees. “One could hypothesise that e-scooters not only make the first-mile or last-mile possible for those users who live far from stations, they also offer that little bit of fun that makes an intermodal trip attractive,” she says.

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In her report on e-scooters and climate action, C40’s Mahoney recommends “cities should prioritise the requirements of people who walk, cycle or use public mass transit, over the requirements of e-scooters.” Some, however, believe the embracing of e-scooters can help build pressure for cycling infrastructure. “When tens of thousands of e-scooters were dropped on our streets, and forbidden to ride on the sidewalk, this need for dedicated alternative mobility space suddenly became visible to everyone,” says 6t’s Lagadic. “E-scooters provide an extra critical mass that justifies further developing the cycling lane network.”

Aimee Gauthier, chief knowledge officer at the Institute for Transport Development and Policy, agrees. “If public acceptance is higher for e-scooters, this could also be an avenue for getting more dedicated bike lanes built on the street for these modes.” E-scooters might even help people get on to bikes, Gauthier suggests. “We hope for them to be a gateway to cycling. We’ve seen that a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable on bikes did try e-scooters, so there’s a sense that for some, the barrier to entry may be lower than cycling and an attractive alternative to cars.”

E-scooters are still relative newcomers to the streets, but their story has evolved rapidly. Through wider use, sustainability commitments and regulations, they have started to shake off that tech-gadget novelty and be treated as a more serious transport mode, and one with added benefits in an era of social distancing. But making sure e-scooter use is inclusive, safe and sustainable – and complements, if not actively supports, other green forms of travel – takes a lot of work, from private companies and governments alike. Much of that work is yet to come.

Being tech-led, e-scooters are considered a disruptive form of transport – the kind of “innovation” that necessarily splits opinion. But it’s worth noting that even when the bicycle burst onto the scene in the late 19th Century, it was considered “immoral”. Over a hundred years on, we no longer grapple with cycling’s morality but are still struggling to secure environments and infrastructure that sagely and sustainably support it. Let’s hope it doesn’t take so long for other, newly emerging forms of micro-mobility – all of which play a role if we want to dismantle the dominance of fossil-fuelled cars.


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