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Blog Post

The E-scooter Sustainability Story Needs a New Lead Author

Urban government needs to play a more prominent role in e-scooter sharing schemes so they can achieve their environmental potential.

Marcus Miller
Oct 27, 2023

Since electric scooter sharing schemes arrived as a novel way to get around city streets, the question of sustainability has been at the heart of the debate surrounding this new transport mode. To date, there have been two main ‘authors’ of the e-scooter sustainability story. Providers have positioned e-scooters as a sustainable transport mode that can accelerate the decarbonisation of our transport systems. On the other side, environmental researchers have attempted to debunk the claims of operators, contrasting the rosy vision with the on-the-ground reality.

As the e-scooter sustainability story continues to unfold, this article calls for a third ‘author’: national and urban governments, who should step in and steer further development of e-scooter sharing schemes so that they can achieve their long-term environmental potential. E-scooters will only reach their sustainability potential through the right set of policies, incentives, and regulations, and it is incumbent on governments to help deliver that optimal outcome.

Introducing our first author — the e-scooter provider

E-scooter sharing was first launched by Bird in Santa Monica, California, in September 2017. Since this date, mobility operators have set out to create a story that positions e-scooters as a fundamentally sustainable transport mode that can accelerate the decarbonisation of our transport systems and the transition away from car use.

In marketing material, providers have understandably contrasted e-scooter use against the private car — the vehicle in our transport systems that contribute the most to transportation emissions. Voi want us to reimagine our cities “full of joy — not cars, noise and pollution”, Dott are “here to free our cities with clean rides for everyone”, Tier promise to be “change(ing) mobility for good”, whilst Bird’s mission is to “create a more liveable future by reducing car trips, traffic, and carbon emissions”.

The visions are optimistic, but they are largely achievable. When contrasted with fossil fuel-powered cars, the environmental merits of e-scooters appear to be a given. They’re small, quiet and don’t release any emissions at the point of use.

Despite the promising vision portrayed by shared mobility operators, e-scooters were not introduced into transport systems characterised exclusively by car use. Whilst they have been introduced into some of the most car-dependent cities in the world; in countries such as the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom, they have also been deployed in cities with the most developed public transit, walking and cycling networks in the world. Zurich, which has a public transport system that has been likened to that of the finest Swiss watch, provides a good example.

When e-scooters are introduced into a new city they generate new trips and replace trips that would have been taken on existing transport modes- ones that emit at the point of use (cars, taxis and to lesser extent buses) and ones that don’t (walking, cycling and electrified public transport).

Our second author: Studies on the environmental impact of shared electric scooters

By 2019 e-scooter sharing schemes were growing at a rapid rate worldwide. Claims of the short lifespans of sharing scooters began to circulate, which can be traced back to this highly-flawed study conducted by New York-based magazine Quartz which claimed lifespans of just 28 days (A critique of this study can be found on page 16 of this report by Carbone 4). Regardless, it did not take long for e-scooters to draw the attention of serious environmental researchers from leading universities.

In response to the vision in the providers’ marketing campaigns, researchers assessed the present situation regarding the environmental impact of e-scooters. Applying life-cycle analysis approaches, which are viewed as the closest thing we have to a gold standard in environmental assessment, the studies aimed to isolate the environmental impact of e-scooters by looking at their environmental impact across their entire lifespan (manufacture, operations/ use and disposal). These life-cycle analysis studies were generally combined with modal shift surveys asking respondents, “How would you have travelled if an e-scooter was not available?” so that the net environmental impact of introducing e-scooters could be calculated.

The first and most well-known study of this kind was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and focused on the case of e-scooters in Raleigh NC. Simply titled “Are E-scooters Polluters?”, it concluded that “claims of providers should be met with scepticism”. With the key finding that the greenhouse gas emissions of shared e-scooter use were found to be 65% higher than the modes they replaced, the study rang alarm bells throughout the industry.

Since “Are E-scooters Polluters?” was published, several other studies have followed suit, including this one from Belgium. Similarly, the paper found that the greenhouse gas emissions were 19% higher than the modes that they replaced.

Response from e-scooter providers

These early life-cycle studies have played a crucial role in shaping the e-scooter sustainability story to date. In the years since “Are E-scooters Polluters?’’ most providers have sought to improve the sustainability of their operations, with many taking a life cycle approach to do so. Changes that have been introduced included: increasing the durability of e-scooters (which some providers claim are now up to five years), using cargo bikes and electric vehicles for redistribution instead of gasoline-powered vans, and introducing larger, often swappable batteries to reduce redistribution loads. Many providers have also taken the next step by committing to offset any further carbon emissions.

The latest development

The most recent chapter of the story was written in Zurich — the city with a transport system that runs like clockwork. Published in January 2022, the researchers there applied an innovative modelling approach to gauge residents’ travel preferences, as opposed to previous studies using survey methods.

On the surface, the conclusions are equally as damning as the studies mentioned above. It was found that the emissions from the modes substituted by e-scooters equated to 55 grams per kilometre. The study then compared this finding to a life-cycle carbon emissions figure of 106g per kilometre. This figure was taken from this 2020 study looking at a “new generation” electric scooter conducted by the International Transport Forum. Clearly, the quoted figure of 106g per kilometre is significantly higher than the modes e-scooters were calculated as replacing and formed the basis for their conclusion that shared e-scooters were having a negative impact on Zurich’s transport emissions.

But the study by the International Transport Forum provides a range of figures for the life cycle emissions of the 2020 e-scooter, which depended on the operations and manufacturing processes of the provider. The lowest figure is 38 grams of CO₂ per km, which can be achieved when, compared to the inputs that generated the 106g figure, several changes are made to a provider’s operations. These include halving the distance to the storage warehouse, using low-carbon electric vehicles to redistribute e-scooters and using low-carbon electricity to charge the scooters. In essence, using a life-cycle figure from a 2020 model e-scooter without considering any operation improvements, the study failed to account for the environmental improvements made over the past two years- both in manufacturing and operations. Several of the operators in Zurich have already made similar changes to their manufacturing and operations.

What the 38g/km figure tells us is that, if the right manufacturing processes and operations are in place, e-scooters can improve carbon emissions even in a city with a transport system as advanced as Zurich’s, where the modes e-scooters substitute have average carbon emissions as low as 55g/km according to the study. This sets the scene for the next chapter in the e-scooter sustainability story.

The role of national and urban government in steering e-scooters towards sustainability goals

Even in cities with the most advanced public transport systems, there appears to be a path for e-scooters to contribute to the development of sustainable transport systems. But, on their own, market forces may not lead to the most sustainable outcomes. National and urban governments, therefore, need to play a crucial role in ensuring that improvements are implemented by providers.

City governments should favour the deployment of e-scooters from operators that can demonstrate that high environmental standards have been adhered to in their manufacturing processes. They must also, in the operations phase, require mobility providers to use low carbon electricity in their warehouses and the use of low carbon electric vehicles and cargo bikes for distribution.

City authorities also need to correctly align subsidy profiles across all transport modes to encourage greater use of more sustainable transport modes. For shared mobility, authorities should aim to create conditions that enable the replacement of ‘less sustainable’ modes (typically the private car), and decrease the chance of replacing ‘more sustainable modes’ (typically walking and cycling). Subsidies could be a valuable tool in ensuring shared mobility schemes serve less profitable areas of a city such as low-density suburban areas which are underserved by public transport and where car use is high, whilst charges could be implemented in areas where shared mobility is more likely to generate a shift away from a walking or cycling journey. When considering subsidies, authorities should also consider that the use of shared mobility can often be disincentivised by the implied subsidies on car use through providing below-market-rate parking spaces for private cars.

The provision of supportive infrastructure — both built and digital — is also crucial. The rise in shared micro-mobility, scooters and bike-share schemes, has increased the total number of trips taken using lighter transport modes. This should give cities the confidence to build networks of supporting infrastructure, including cycle lanes, mobility hubs and parking infrastructure. As seen by the success of the ‘pop-up’ ‘corona’ cycle lanes in cities such as Paris, London and Brussels, taking steps to provide supportive infrastructure can set off a virtuous cycle of increased provision and usage. Regarding digital infrastructure, transport authorities should seek to support intermodal journeys through supporting single ticketing and Mobility-as-a-Service schemes.

Transport emissions still account for 26% and 28% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU and US respectively, and private car use is proving to be one of the most difficult emission segments to reduce in many cities. Whilst e-scooters and other forms of shared mobility won’t achieve a transition away from private car use on their own, shared mobility is one piece of the puzzle that could increase people’s confidence in leaving their cars at home and perhaps delay or even forgo car ownership altogether.

About Vianova

Vianova is a technology and service provider currently helping over 50 cities and other authorities worldwide tackle the challenges associated with introducing e-scooters and other types of shared mobility.

Vianova provides data, insights and tools which help authorities take decisions to improve the safety and sustainability of the shared mobility schemes in their cities. We have recently developed an AI intelligence tool that helps authorities and operators identify the parts of a city to deploy shared vehicles where they are most likely to stimulate a shift away from private car use, in turn accelerating carbon reduction.

Please get in touch if you would like to find out more about Vianova’s carbon reduction tool or how we help cities, transport authorities and operators tackle the challenges associated with shared mobility more generally.

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