Like a balm The spring evening went down west of Paris, I had to cross the city to my apartment, about three miles away. The streets were crowded, so I hesitated to take a taxi, and didn’t feel like taking the subway because it was hot and the station was far away. So I rented a battery-powered scooter that was available on the street and that has wetted traffic, right at my front door. The trip was fun, not to mention affordable and fast. It was green too, I guessed: electric scooters don’t belch smoke, so it had to be, right?
The launch of a large number of shared electronic scooters has been built on this premise: instead of a car that consumes gasoline, take a two-wheeled electric vehicle. Save the planet and time. Lime, which operates worldwide but mainly in Europe and North America, aims to “build a future where transportation is shared, affordable and carbon-free.” Another operator, Bird, suggests that users can “reduce CO2“One trip at a time.”
But research indicates that electronic rental scooters have not reduced carbon emissions in cities. It’s complicated, says Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. There are many circumstances in which electronic scooter programs can be green, he says, but it depends on how and where they work.
Love them or hate them, rental electronic scooters have flooded the world’s largest cities. It is estimated that people in the U.S. made about 86 million trips on shared scooters in 2019, before the disruption of the pandemic saw almost all forms of transportation fall. Even in 2020, affected by Covid, the last year for which data are available, people in the United States, Canada and Mexico managed to make more than 25 million trips. You can find electronic scooter rentals in hundreds of cities on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Seattle, London, Rome and Kyiv. They are also descending into New York and increasingly into Asian cities.
The first of these programs was launched by the micromobility company Bird in Santa Monica, California, in September 2017. Others soon followed and were an immediate success. But as the market expanded, there was little rigorous analysis of the environmental impact of these rental programs. Electric scooters were supposed to have an insignificant carbon footprint, which helped companies raise large sums of investment. As of May 2019, there were 14 electronic scooter companies operating in 97 U.S. cities.
To assess the environmental impact of these programs, it is necessary to take into account the emissions of electric scooters throughout their entire life cycle: the production of materials and components that go into each scooter; the manufacturing process; sending scooters to wherever they are used; the collection, loading and redistribution of scooters; and the elimination of them. Once this is done, you can paint a bleak picture.
According to a 2019 study conducted in the US state of North Carolina, shared electronic scooters produce 202 grams of CO2 per passenger mile throughout its life cycle: more than one electric moped (119 grams), electric bicycle (40 grams), bicycle (8 grams) and even a diesel bus (82 grams), assuming you have a large number of people. Although the study found that electric scooters produce lower carbon emissions than a shared car (415 grams), only 34 percent of trips with scooters analyzed replaced a trip that would have been done in one.
In contrast, nearly half of the trips would have been a bike ride or a ride, and 11 percent would have been bus trips. 7 percent of trips would not have happened at all without electronic scooters. Because the additional emissions from scooters were greater than the gains from unrealized car trips, the study concluded that e-scooter rental programs add to overall transportation emissions.
These findings were added to a 2020 study in Paris, which concluded that the city’s shared electronic scooters added an additional 13,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases to the city’s carbon footprint over a year, equivalent to the total annual emissions of a small town. Again, trips with electronic scooters were often replacing trips made in low-emission modes of transportation.
Earlier this year, a study by Daniel Reck and Kay Axhausen at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich concluded that, on average, a shared electric scooter creates 51 grams more CO2 per kilometer than the means of transport it replaces. “The end result is that shared electronic scooters are currently harming the weather,” Reck said in an interview with the German newspaper. The weather.
Much of this comes down to poor design. During the early days of e-scooter rentals, the industry deployed slightly modified versions of the models sold directly to consumers. Made in China by companies like Xiaomi and Segway-Ninebot, they were unprepared for the rigors of the collaborative economy. The battery housing was often not even waterproof, so in wetter places the batteries would ignite and there was no protection against vandalism and theft. When scooters were a novelty, they were often destroyed. “The first round of vehicles wasn’t really designed for this industry,” says Scott Rushforth, Bird’s director of vehicles.