Scooting Around: Are Shared E-Scooters Good Or Bad For The Environment?

The shared e-scooters floating around Paris may have emitted 12 000 tonnes of additional greenhouse gases over the course of one year, according to a new study. Are the popular micro-vehicles good fun, but not good for the climate?

by Anne de Bortoli

The sudden arrival of massive numbers of shared electric scooters in many cities around the world since 2017 has triggered considerable resentment from other users of our urban space. The skepticism is shared by governments and local authorities – some of whom have banned e-scooters outright, as is the case in London and many university campuses in the United States.

Others have targeted e-scooters with specific regulations. France added a new section to the Code de la route that covers motorised micro-vehicles. The city of Paris will allow only three selected companies to operate in the city, which will be partly chosen on environmental criteria.

But assessing the hoped-for environmental benefits of e-scooters turned out to be a headache for public authorities. The first scientific assessment was not published until the summer of 2019 and was too narrow to draw general conclusions about their environmental effect: it only estimated the environmental impact of using a free-floating e-scooter over an average of one kilometre in US cities.

Change to the system

Yet e-scooters are disrupting the long-established patterns of urban mobility and should not be looked at in isolation. They are not just something additional, they are bringing real change to the system: by replacing trips with cars, bicycles or on foot, but also by inducing people to take an e-scooter when previously they would not have bothered to move.

The environmental question, therefore, should be addressed in these terms: have shared e-scooters reduced the overall environmental impact of human mobility so far? If the answer is yes, how can we exploit these benefits even further? If it is no, should there be any room for e-scooters in a sustainable mobility system?

What’s in a lifetime?

At the University of Patras, we took up the challenge. Using a cutting-edge method developed in-house, we were able to calculate how CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions for the entire mobility system of Paris over a whole year were affected by the usage of shared e-scooters

The model reflects how people switch from other transport options to shared e-scooters as well as the new trips these trigger, information that was gleaned from a dedicated survey. It also uses a so-called life cycle assessment, which takes account not only of direct emissions during operation but the entirety of emissions over the life cycle of the elements that make up the transport system, including infrastructure and vehicles.

This is crucial. The operation of shared vehicles is comparatively energy efficient, and much of the environmental impact stems from manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal. The model also anticipates changes that are likely to occur in relevant industries – for instance a change in the carbon intensity of the electricity consumed – to calculate environmental performance.

In the (carbon) balance

The result of the modelling exercise was perhaps unexpected: Parisian e-scooters (shared ones, that is) generated 12 000 tonnes of additional greenhouse gases in the city over one year ─ that is equivalent to the annual emissions produced by a French town of 15 000 inhabitants.

Three reasons lie behind this negative carbon balance.

First, the production of e-scooters is not very environmentally-friendly. Production accounts for a full third of the Parisian e-scooters’ marginal environmental impact, that is to say of the absolute values of the GHG savings and extra-emissions due to shared e-scooters. This is notably due to the carbon-intensive production of the aluminum used for the vehicle frame and because of the lithium-ion battery.

Second, servicing the e-scooters causes considerable emissions. Standard vans with internal combustion engines are used to collect the e-scooters, charge them and then drop them again across the city. This support also makes up one third of the Parisian e-scooters’ marginal emissions due to shared e-scooters.

Finally, e-scooter trips often replace low-carbon trips. This is due to 60% of modal shifts coming from massive electrified public transport – the Metro, the RER light trains, the trams, 13% from walking, and 9% from cycling. These transport modes present a lower carbon footprint than the shared e-scooter: respectively 8, 9, 20, 2 and 36 gCO2eq per passenger-kilometre traveled, compared to 108 g for the e-scooter.

Strike ‘em?

So should e-scooters be struck from the list of solutions for green mobility? In fact, things are not quite that simple. Their environmental impact depends on three factors: firstly, their entire life cycle emissions (and how operators manage these), the specific mobility patterns of the cities in which they operate (and the shares of transport modes e-scooters replace); and, finally, the carbon intensity of the electricity they consume.

The carbon footprint for a shared e-scooter roaming Paris is 50 grams of CO2eq per kilometre, if servicing impacts are excluded – which is about as much as that of a shared bicycle. And if the e-scooter’s lifetime mileage increases to 5 200 kilometres instead of 3 750 (our base case scenario in the model), the emissions fall to 30 gCO2eq per kilometre traveled: in Paris, this is one quarter of a diesel bus, one seventh of a private car, and one tenth of a taxi’s emissions per passenger-kilometre traveled.

Operators thus have their work cut out: they need to simultaneously green manufacture of e-scooters, improve their durability and recyclability, and drastically enhance their servicing process. In the case of Paris, the last point is necessary to get a positive impact of the shared e-scooters.

Each city has a unique mobility system with specific environmental impacts and different user behaviors, and these factors shape the impact e-scooters have on the overall system. The results of our analysis thus cannot be simply transferred to other cities, and even less to other countries. But  an extra analysis we did on the impact of the electricity carbon intensity does suggest that, beyond the case of Paris or similar cities, shared e-scooters have a good potential to make urban mobility greener, once the three main factors that make their current carbon balance negative – at least in Paris – have been addressed. Whether that promise materialises in different contexts will need to be examined in well-tailored, case-by-case studies.

Watch the life cycle

What are our conclusions and recommendations? First, the environmental performance of transport options must be assessed for the complete life cycle to ensure shared vehicles are really green(er). Conventional wisdom assumes that using more shared vehicles reduces the environmental footprint, but our somewhat counter-intuitive results show that servicing and shorter lifespans can in fact lead to higher overall emissions.

Secondly, proper assessments of transport modes needs (good) data. Operators should therefore be required, as a licensing condition, to share their data with the public authorities ─ vehicle components and energy consumption, as well as statistics on servicing, lifetime mileage, maintenance schemes and recycling. For our study, we contacted the thirteen e-scooter operators in Paris in the summer of 2019 ─ only one answered, and finally did not share any data.

Finally, e-scooters and other micro-vehicles have a role to play in a green mobility system ─ even  where their eco-balance is less good than other modes. E-scooters can help overcome the first/last mile problem that keeps many people from using public transport because the closest metro station is too far to walk to.

The availability of shared e-scooters can also trigger a ripple effect: the experience could nudge people to buy their own personal e-scooter, which will likely be used much longer and thus with a much lower life cycle emissions ─ we estimate them as low as 12 gCO2eq/km for a life-cycle use of 15 000 km.

Let’s not forget that mobility systems are dynamic. Thus, environmental assessments need to be updated regularly, especially when new services enter the mix and change somewhat established patterns. And it is a safe bet that the current pandemic is changing mobility habits drastically, possibly for good.

Anne de Bortoli is the ITF Young Researcher of the Year 2020. This blog summarises the findings of her winning paper, which she wrote while at the University of Patras, Greece, and currently under peer review for an international journal. Anne is now an eco-design researcher with Eurovia, the road construction subsidiary of the VINCI Group.

Born out of need: How the Global South is driving transport innovation

By Will Duncan

The world’s emerging nations are fertile ground for radical and creative mobility solutions. Government-supported innovation is helping the Global South become a leading force in the future of transport.

CS2B
RT-Mart electric bus in China | Photo: Mars Hartdegen/Flickr

The transport sector is moving quickly these days. New technologies, shared services, and GPS are changing how we get from A to B. But perhaps one of the most interesting trends in transport is where, exactly, these innovations are coming from.

“The future of transport is in the Global South’s hands,” says Bambang Susantono, former transport minister of Malaysia and now vice-president of the Asian Development Bank.

It’s easy to see why: Twenty-seven of the world’s 33 megacities are in the Global South — a term that describes low- and middle-income countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Extraordinary economic growth and rapid urbanisation have brought sudden change to the Global South. With progress comes a host of challenges — and, first among these is transport.

But need begets innovation. And thus, the assumption that innovation flows from rich to less prosperous regions, from industrialised to developing countries, from the northern to the southern hemisphere is being challenged. Inspiration for tomorrow’s transport solutions can be found in the Global South’s emerging nations by those who care to look.

Decades ahead

Take shared mobility. No other topic preoccupies city officials, transport planners and entrepreneurs in the industrialised North today as much as the question of how to get more than one person into a car built for four or more.

In the South, it’s been a reality for decades. “Shared mobility is everywhere when I travel cities as a global researcher,” says Fábio Duarte, Professor of Urban Planning in Curitiba, Brazil. “I take taxis in Brasília, hold on tight to ojek motorcycles in Jakarta, or figure out how to reach my destinations with matatus in Nairobi.”

Durante says that “thinking of shared mobility as a novelty is a narrow view held in the Global North”. It ignores the creative ways that societies with few cars and inadequate public transport are coping with the lack of options.

WhereIsMyTransport, a UK start-up, secured USD 1.5 million in funding in 2016 to create an accessible and accurate data service for Cape Town’s formal and informal transport routes. Informal shared minibus routes make up a significant proportion of the city’s commutes, which is typical of many cities outside of Europe and North America. WhereIsMyTransport’s digital map has made these services visible. They’re presented as complimentary or, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to any other way to get around the city.

After securing further investment, the company has expanded its data and mapping service throughout Latin America and Asia. A recent project saw informal transport in Mexico City mapped to include over 30 000 informal minibus routes.

whereismytransport02.png
Formal and informal transport networks in Gauteng, South Africa. Source: WhereIsMyTransport

The South is electric

Electric mobility is another example. Despite ambitious pledges, the share of electric vehicles in the Global North remains marginal: just 2.5% of 2018 car sales in the UK were electric, 2.1% in France, and 1% in Japan. Only Norway stands out, with just under 49.1%.

The world leader in electric mobility today is China. Almost 99% of all electric buses and two-wheelers, and 40% of the world’s total of private electric cars can be found there.

This hasn’t happened by accident. The electric mobility revolution that is sweeping the Peoples’ Republic is the result of deliberate government policy. Beijing’s regulatory push mixes substantial investment into research and development, and strict emissions standards designed to force out internal combustion engines with targeted subsidies that have reduced risk for transport operators looking to adapt to the new cleaner technology. Thus, research, industry, and government are steered towards a prevailing direction, turning the country into a world market leader.

Both national legislation and city halls are in a position to provide the “enabling framework” for healthy competition, innovative ideas, and for market disruptions with the potential to greatly benefit citizens.

Emerging nations find themselves with greater freedom to innovate, as they tend to be less restricted by the historical legacies of some more developed countries. “Developing countries can break the mould of traditional transport,” says Susantono. ”The Asian car market is less wedded to internal combustion engines; hence the region now has the largest share of e-vehicles worldwide,” Susantono explains. “In this dynamic, governments of the Global South can be the leaders of change.”

In a further article looking into transport innovation in the Global South, we take Indonesia’s Gojek as a case study and examine Southeast Asia’s bustling on-demand transport market.

expanding

To learn more about global transport innovation, check out the ITF Corporate Partnership Board’s new report Expanding Innovation Horizons: Learning from transport solutions in the Global South.

Will Duncan is currently studying a Master in Public Policy at Sciences Po in Paris, and is an intern at the International Transport Forum at the OECD.

 

Can Electric Cars Drive Global Decarbonisation?

nancy-vandyckeBy Nancy L. Vandycke, Program Manager, Sustainable Mobility for All Initiative, World Bank

Can one plus one be more than two? I believe that it can. In fact, I would wager that we must find opportunities to do so if we are serious about delivering our goals for the Paris Climate Agreement. The transport-energy nexus is precisely a place where we can find such opportunities; more specifically, I am talking about the possibility of global decarbonisation through the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). That said, we must always be aware of potential pitfalls. Allow me to share my experience.

The promise of global emission reduction

In 2017, transport accounted for 24 per cent of total CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. To reduce emissions, many countries have been promoting the electrification of transport. For many, adopting the trend for EVs is a way to transition passenger fleet away from conventional gasoline and diesel-fuelled cars. In fact, last year, global sales of EV surpassed a million units. Under the current trend, EV production could almost quadruple by 2020, with China leading the way.

34851733984_ef336560fa_kAs more and more EVs replace internal combustion vehicles, the energy burden for transport will eventually shift from oil to electricity. This is good news for the power sector. By riding on the trend of increased EVs, it can become part of a solution for global decarbonisation.

There is an added bonus for the power sector. For years, its profitability has been in decline. Charging EVs will add some load to the power grid, which is a welcome development for utilities against the continued decline in electricity prices.

Such a scenario seems promising, but there are potential pitfalls along the way.

The pitfalls

For a long time now, the transport and energy sectors have been talking about decarbonisation in their own circles.

As I sat in conversations with industry leaders from each sector—both in my role as the lead for Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All) and as a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) global council on advanced energy technologies—I came to realise how disconnected the conversations about decarbonisation are. If we were to connect the two sectors, we must bring them to sit at the same table.

Accordingly, SuM4All invited experts in the energy sector to the table at our last consortium meeting in January 2019. However, it soon became clear that each side is speaking about decarbonisation in their own language and neither side could understand the other. Until both sides find a common language and tie their conversations together, it is unlikely that developments in these respective industries will succeed at decarbonising the global economy.

sum4all-consortium-meeting.jpg

Even if both sides manage to come to an agreement on a common language and approach, one must be thoughtful about the way both sectors collaborate.

As of today, renewable energy accounts for merely a quarter of total global power generation. Without greening the power grid, a wholesale adoption of EVs will not result in true decarbonisation in either sector. Half of the G20 countries have made progress in expanding renewable electricity generation in the years leading up to 2015, but, alarmingly, nine saw declines in 2015 and the preceding years. Reducing the carbon intensity of power generation is what matters in the end.

But this transformation will not happen overnight. As the share of renewables increases in the energy mix, the carbon intensity of energy production will also increase. In fact, in the short term, one expects an overall increase in carbon emissions with the EV deployment, simply because of the EV battery manufacturing.

The way forward

The good news is that if we manage to co-ordinate policy interventions within the transport and energy sectors, we can make great strides towards decarbonisation. For example, policy support measures that target electrification in the transport sector should be linked to renewable requirements on the energy side.  For this reason, I plan to bring a clear and simple message to the Electric and Digital Mobility event ahead of the upcoming ITF Summit: to fully leverage the power of mobility, we need to concurrently clean up the grid.

If we manage to do so, one plus one can indeed be more than two, and the Paris Climate Agreement goals will be very much within our reach.

Nancy L. Vandycke is a speaker at the TUMIVolt Conference on 21 May 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. The ITF Summit follows from 22-24 May.