ITEM: Dockless e-scooters are touted as green solutions for urban transport, but a new study says that actually they aren’t, once you factor in things like how they’re manufactured, how often they’re replaced, and making sure they’re fully charged.
One of the key selling points of e-scooters as a last-mile public transport option is that they’re better for the environment because they replace cars that would otherwise be on the city streets. In other words, for every person riding an e-scooter, that’s one less car polluting the air with CO2, while the e-scooter’s emissions are far less than the car it’s replacing.
That’s technically true, but tailpipe emissions aren’t the whole story, according to a research team at North Carolina State University, which argues in a research paper that to properly assess the carbon footprint of an e-scooter scheme, “full consideration of the life cycle impacts is required to properly understand their environmental impacts.”
That means looking at things like the raw materials required to manufacture the scooters, the manufacturing process itself, the actual lifecycle of the e-scooter (from the time it hits the street to the time it needs to be replaced) and the vehicles required to drive around the city collecting scooters, taking them to a charging station, and then putting them back in locations where people are likely to use them.
Once you include those elements, the research paper says, in 65% of its simulations, e-scooter programs generated higher emissions per passenger mile compared to other alternatives, even when you take into account the CO2 savings from cars that weren’t on the road as a result.
The paper says that raw materials and manufacturing account for 50% of e-scooter carbon footprints, while daily collection of scooters to charging stations accounts for 43% (the actual charging process also contributes to the total carbon footprint, but it’s relatively small compared to the above two items).
One reason raw materials and manufacturing takes up a huge chunk has to do with the fact that e-scooters have a short lifecycle. In theory they can last at least a couple of years when used properly – in reality, they’re lucky to last 30 days, as MIT Technology Review has noted:
Scooters are variously flung into water bodies, tossed from buildings, set on fire, run over, and used in stunts. Cleanup crews in Oakland, California, fished 60 scooters out of Lake Merritt in a single month last year, Slate reported.
An analysis of open data from Bird’s inaugural fleet in Louisville, Kentucky, conducted by Quartz last year, found that the average scooter lasted just 28.8 days. Likewise, Bird itself acknowledged in investor documents at an earlier point that its vehicles last only about a month or two, The Information reported.
The good news, the report says, is that if e-scooter companies find ways to address these specific problems, the eco-friendliness of scooters can be increased dramatically. For example, they could use electric vehicles to collect scooters and centralize management of the collection process to reduce how many kilometres they need to drive to pick them up. It would also help if scooter manufacturers built them with more recyclable materials.
Meanwhile, municipal governments could help with policies that allow e-scooters to remain in public areas overnight (especially if they don’t require recharging) and enacting or enforcing anti-vandalism policies to reduce the abuse of e-scooters that results in short lifetimes.
But until then, the researchers say, “Claims of environmental benefits from their use should be met with scepticism.”
Meanwhile, there’s always pogo sticks, I guess.