Updated: Mar 16
If you live in a metropolitan European city then there is a good chance you will be familiar with electronic scooter, in particular rentable ones used as an alternative to public transport. The 2020’s answer to the rental bike scheme, many cities now host e-scooters on their streets. On the face of it you would assume that being electric these scooters offer a very sustainable alternative to transport, and this is partly true.
Diving deeper though, the true picture is not a clear as its face value. Research has suggested that by 2024, around 4.6 million shared e-scooters will be in operation worldwide, up from 774,000 in 2019. Shared e-scooters, referring to the rental scooters found docked in cities as opposed to privately owned e-scooters. In fact, the popularity of the scooters is rising so rapidly that the number of people who had tried riding an e-scooter had almost doubled between 2019 and 2020. There has also been interesting analysis into the demographic of e-scooter renters and questions whether this has affected their reasons for use and therefore sustainability. Like anything relatively new, there is time for change and improvement and the coming years will certainly be interesting.
Taking a look at what e-scooters do well, they offer a cheap transport option which puts less people in cars on the roads. Furthermore, they are powered by electric motors and produce no exhaust fumes and require no fuels to power them other than electric charging. The average car produces 650 grams of CO₂ per km, in comparison the emissions of a personal e-scooter travelling the same distance are roughly 65 grams, and about 202 grams for rental scooters. E-scooters are also very accessible in the sense in most cities you do not need a driver’s licence to ride them, this opens up opportunities to many people with limited transport options. The rise of e-scooters may also disincentivise young people from buying cars which would start a slow but steady reduction in the number of vehicles on the road causing pollution.
There has been however, a lot of studies that appear to prove that the e-scooter transport revolution may not be as environmentally friendly as first thought. Although using an e-scooter is an emission free experience, the manufacturing process as well as the transport and maintenance of the scooters is not. A Lufthansa Innovation Hub ranking which studied the carbon emissions of various transport types, suggests the average emissions of dockless e-scooters are higher than those of trains, buses, e-bikes, electric cars, and petrol-powered scooters. This is also substantiated by a 2019 North Carolina study which found that the scooters produce more emissions per passenger than a bus with a high ridership would. Aside from emissions, there is another sticking point, namely the concern that people will replace walking relatively short distances with scooter rides. Data gathered from French cities shows that 44% of local e-scooter users would have walked had the scooters not been available and 30% would have used public transport. Again, a study in Portland, Oregon, found 45% of people surveyed would have walked or used a bicycle if scooters had not been an option, another study in Chicago saw similar results with 30% saying they would’ve chosen to walk. There is also the question of durability, most shared e-scooters are meant to have a lifespan of around 1-2 years however due to damage, both deliberate and accidental this lifespan is shortened quite dramatically.
Although they have their problems, it is clear to see that with e-scooters there is a great opportunity to finetune a true eco-friendly electric transport system to use in cities, available to all. Electric scooter companies are taking steps in the right direction to make their practices and scooters more sustainable. E Scooter companies such as Bird, Lime, Voi and Tier are introducing the use of renewable energy in their 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 have made claims that their latest e-scooter lasts for up to two years, therefore reducing its environmental impact. Lime have recently committed to switch all operation and maintenance vehicles to be 100% electric by 2030, they have also signed a document along with 75 other companies which pushes for more electric vehicles to be rolled out. Voi is claiming that their service is now carbon neutral, they have achieved this through electric service vehicles, swappable batteries and designing scooters that have longer durability. Voi found by implementing these measures in Paris that they reduced emissions by around 70%. Tier is moving all of its warehouses to green energy as of last year. These are all good moves in the right direction, with more technical innovation and sustainable thinking then e-scooters could be the future of inner-city transport.