Renting electric scooters is not as green as you think

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Like a balm Spring evening descended on western Paris, I had to make my way through the city to my apartment, about three kilometers away. The streets were congested, so I did not dare to take a taxi, and I did not want to take the metro, because it was hot and the station was far away. So I rented a battery-powered scooter that I could find on the street and made my way through the traffic right to the front door. The trip was fun, not to mention affordable and fast. I assumed it was also green: e-scooters don’t spew fumes, so it must have been, right?

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The introduction of a huge number of generic e-scooters has been built on this premise: instead of a gas-guzzling car, take an electric two-wheeler. Save the planet and time. Lime, which operates globally but primarily in Europe and North America, aims to “build a future where transportation is shared, accessible and carbon-free.” another operator, Birdsuggests that users can “reduce CO2– one trip at a time.

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But research shows that e-scooter rentals don’t actually reduce urban carbon emissions. It’s tricky, says Juan Matute, associate director of the UCLA Transportation Research Institute. There are many circumstances under which e-scooter programs can be green, he says, but it depends on how and where they operate.

Love it or hate it, e-scooter rentals have flooded the world’s biggest cities. People in the US took about 86 million trips on shared e-scooters in 2019, before the pandemic brought nearly all forms of transportation down. Even in the Covid-stricken 2020 – the latest year for which data is available – people in the US, Canada and Mexico managed to survive 25 million trips. You can find e-scooter rentals in hundreds of cities on both sides of the Atlantic, including Seattle, London, Romeas well as Kyiv. They also descending in New York and increasingly in cities in Asia.

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The first of these programs was launched by micromobility company Bird in Santa Monica, California in September 2017. Others soon followed, with immediate success. But as the market expanded, there was no thorough analysis of the environmental impact of these rental programs. E-scooters were supposed to have a negligible carbon footprint, which helped companies attract huge amounts of investment. By May 2019, there were 14 e-scooter companies. current in 97 American cities.

To assess the environmental impact of these programs, you must consider the emissions of e-scooters throughout their life cycle: the production of the materials and components that make up each scooter; manufacturing process; delivery of scooters to where they will be used; collection, charging and redistribution of scooters; and their disposal. Once you do, it can paint a bleak picture.

According to 2019 study spent in the US state of North Carolina on shared e-scooters produce 202 grams CO2 per passenger mile over their entire life cycle – more than an electric moped (119 grams), an electric bicycle (40 grams), a bicycle (8 grams) and even a bus with a diesel engine (82 grams), provided that there are many passengers in it. Although the study found that e-scooters produce less carbon emissions than a common car (415 grams), only 34% of e-scooter rides analyzed replace a ride that would have been taken in one go.

In contrast, almost half of the trips would be a bike ride or a walk, and 11 percent would be a bus ride. 7 percent of trips would not have happened no electric scooters at all. Because the additional emissions from scooters outweighed any gains from unused car rides, the study concluded that e-scooter rental programs increase transport emissions overall.

These findings were supplemented by the 2020 report. study in Paris, which concluded that the city’s shared e-scooters added 13,000 metric tons of additional greenhouse gases to the city’s carbon footprint in a year, equivalent to the total annual emissions of a small city. Again, e-scooter trips have often replaced low-emission modes of transport.

Earlier this year, the study Daniel Reck and Kay Axhausen from the Swiss Federal Institute Technology in Zurich concluded that, on average, a shared e-scooter creates 51 grams more CO2 per kilometer than the vehicle it replaces. “The bottom line is that shared e-scooters are currently causing climate damage,” Rec. said in an interview with a German newspaper Die Zeit.

Much of this is due to poor design. In the early days of e-scooter rentals, the industry used slightly modified versions of models sold directly to consumers. Manufactured in China by companies such as Xiaomi and Segway-Ninebotthey were not prepared for the harsh conditions of the sharing economy. The battery case was often not even waterproof, so in wetter areas the batteries ignited and there was no protection against vandalism and theft. Where scooters were new, they were often destroyed. “The first batch of vehicles was not designed for this industry,” says Scott Rushforth, director of vehicles at Bird.

Early fleets lasted only a few months, even at their best. And with their aluminum frames and lithium-ion batteries, replacing them meant emitting much more carbon. “Lithium-ion battery depreciation plus production emissions over 200 trips rather than 2,000 trips doesn’t look good,” Matute says.

Then there are the scooters’ own transportation needs. They have traditionally relied on small batteries that need to be recharged frequently, usually by people hired to pick up the scooters, drive them out of town to recharge, and return them the next morning. Drivers are also accustomed to redistributing the fleet when too many scooters are left in an area where they won’t really be used.

Combine these manufacturing and operational emissions and you have the bulk of the leasing program’s environmental impact. Researchers in a North Carolina study calculated that 93 percent of an e-scooter’s total carbon footprint falls into these categories. (Charging a rented e-scooter only costs 5 percent its total emissions.)

But it does mean that there are obvious ways that operators can reduce the emissions of their rental programs: for example, through new approaches to the collection and distribution of their fleet. AT follow up According to a Paris study, one of its researchers, Anne de Bartoli, found that by transporting e-scooters in electric vehicles and optimizing routes, operators can cut carbon emissions by as much as 55 percent. The City has urged electric scooter operators to make these changes, which have begun to place more emphasis on environmental certifications and life cycle analysis when deciding whether to issue a license.

Companies are also making their scooters more durable. Between 60 and 70 percent of e-scooter operators, including European giants such as Tier and Bolt, source their scooters from either Segway-Ninebot or Okai, and both companies have worked to create more reliable and durable products. Even the base model Okai, the e-scooter choice for cash-strapped operators, is expected to last about two years. “All short life products have been removed from our portfolio,” says Tony Günther, head of e-commerce at Okai.

Some operators, namely Superpedestrian, Lime and Bird, have gone even further by developing industrial grade models in-house. Everything about today’s scooters is “built for sharing and durability,” says Andrew Savage, head of sustainability at Lime. The company’s latest e-scooter is expected to cover about 20,000 kilometers over a period of at least five years, but chances are it will be longer. Byrd awaits his counterpart, known as Threeto cover at least 10,000 kilometers in the same time period.

Other companies, including Bird and Lime, are also introducing replaceable batteries. Instead of lugging scooters around to recharge, they simply move batteries around, which also have a higher capacity, reducing the number of trips needed to keep their fleet running. “You can take the Bird Three and run it in a nice city like Los Angeles,” says Rushforth, “and you probably don’t need to visit that scooter again for seven or even ten days.” (Bird’s first own model, the Zero, usually had three.)

But as it stands, the environmental certifications of most e-scooter rental programs are hazy. Despite recent improvements noted by operators, they still shy away from disclosing how scooters are made, what their current life cycles are, and how they are assembled, charged, and distributed. On the other hand, since the e-scooter rental market is developing very quickly, it is difficult to extrapolate the findings of existing studies to determine how green these programs will be in the future. (For example, in a study in North Carolina, the team took apart and analyzed the Xiaomi M365, which had long been considered unusable.) “A year, two or three years old study is ancient history in this industry,” says Savage.

It is clear that the industry is rapidly evolving and emissions from e-scooter rentals will decrease over time. It is more to be seen if we can improve the transport methods they replace. For example, in major cities such as Paris, New York and London, where efficient public transport is available, e-scooters will struggle to become the greenest way to get around. According to Reck, who worked on the study in Zurich, e-scooters are often present in city centers where there are a lot of people. But these areas are already well served by public transport.

“At the moment, our problem is that there are no e-scooter companies in the fringes because it is not economically viable,” he says. But get rented e-scooters to places where they’re more likely to displace gasoline and diesel cars, and they can finally live up to their early green promise.

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