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.

Paris: Managing the Shared Mobility Révolution

Shared Mobility in Practice

In Paris, the shared mobility revolution is well underway. We examine how Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ town hall, is trying to get a grip on the situation.

By Emma Latham-Jones and Will Duncan

Over 20,000 dockless trottinettes eléctrique, or electric scooters, have sprung up around the French capital since June 2018, quickly becoming a common sight on the city’s Haussmannian streets. Renting one is as simple as downloading an app and punching in your credit card details. With the scooters seemingly available everywhere – on sidewalks, squares, and by the banks of the Seine – it’s become easy to whizz around the city at a silent speed.

Parisians have been quick to recognise the potential of these new shared vehicles. The novelty of the electric e-scooter has swiftly given way to it being seen as a mainstream and significant mode of transport. As James Tapper wrote in The Guardian, “they’re cheaper than cabs, less effort than a bike and more convenient than buses.” They have a lot going for them.

Never have their benefits been more apparent than during December’s period of grèves – transport strikes – across the capital city. Zipping past tense car drivers stuck in traffic stretching out miles down Paris’ boulevards at rush hour, e-scooters defy both the public transport strikes and the increase in car traffic that’s accompanied it. For those otherwise stranded during the public transport turmoil, these e-scooters seem to be an early Christmas blessing.

But the sudden success of these new networks of scooters has created a dilemma for the city government. Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, ran on an especially green platform and has implemented a number of reforms to combat the city’s pollution levels and traffic congestion. While these new scooters appear to offer Parisians a greener way to get around the City of Light, their sudden arrival has been chaotic, prompting critics to label it an “invasion”.

From Bolt to Lime, the takeover of one-syllable brand names running e-scooter fleets is causing some serious problems. Tourists fly by silently through busy pedestrian areas. Disorganised clusters of scooters block sidewalks and doorways. The less-fortunate can be seen vandalised or discarded in an ugly heap. Tragically, Paris saw its first electric scooter-related death in June 2019, after a truck collided with a rider in the city’s 18th arrondissement.

The transport revolution is taking hold, but it’s causing some serious headaches.

Photo: martin_vmorris (CC), Flickr

Taking back control

In June 2019, Hidalgo declared an “end to the anarchy”. Her government established a new set of rules for shared electric scooters operating with Paris city limits, necessary “to assure road safety and to calm the streets, pavements, and neighbourhoods of our city.”

Riders were banned from rolling along the footpaths or through parks and gardens. Speeds were capped to 25km/h. The number of service operators would be reduced from twelve to an approved (and more manageable) three, and operators have been requested not to increase the number of scooters in circulation while the new national mobility law creates a more appropriate legal framework.

Perhaps the most significant intervention: scooters can no longer be abandoned on the sidewalks – possibly the biggest gripe amongst Parisians towards the new vehicles. E-scooters must be parked in legitimate parking spaces, the same used by cars or bikes. Paris will soon experiment with dedicated shared scooter and bicycle parking spots around the city.

The official Twitter account of the city of Paris

While Paris is in some sense, “cracking down” — these actions don’t really represent the big blow to shared mobility innovation that some may have expected, or feared. Free-floating scooters are in no way banned from operating in the city (like they are in London and Barcelona, for example). Clearly, Paris recognises the potential of free-floating shared vehicles. In fact, by calling for an end of the anarchy, the Parisian government has elected to take a leading role in the responsible management of shared mobility in its city.

“Under no circumstances should this mode of transport be pilloried,” assures a city press release. “[E-scooters] represent a new form of transport mobility and contribute to reducing the use of polluting cars. However, the City of Paris wishes to regulate this mode of transport more effectively to ensure road safety and calm streets and pavements.” 

According to Philippe Crist, Innovation Policy Analyst at the International Transport Forum, “Paris has established an ambitious regulatory framework in less than twelve months.” And in only 16 months, e-scooters were added to the Code de la Route. As a result, they are subject to the rules of the road, and there is now a ban on more than one person per scooter.

With the tender process well under way, the contracts for the three wining e-scooter service operators will be awarded from January 2020. This has prompted scooter companies to share more ambitious approaches to sustainability, declaring the creation of extra scooter repair facilities to extend the notoriously short lifespan. As they race to win the favour of Hôtel de Ville, they also rush to ditch gig workers and instead hire staff on permanent contracts.

Re-imagining the city street

“Why do these scooters often feel so anarchic? Because they’re whizzing down roads that aren’t designed for them,” says Crist.

“We devote a very large part of the road to a wall of steel — parked automobiles. If we managed public space better — if we adapted it to the needs and possibilities of today — it could be quite different,” he says.

Cities must look at how they can effectively regulate — and also benefit from — this kind of innovation. Like other city halls, Paris’ Hôtel de Ville recognises the extraordinary potential of shared mobility to reduce congestion and pollution, by encouraging the idea that owning a private vehicle is not necessary to have high-quality access to the city.

Disruptions like this invite us to imagine how cities could be. According to Crist, “we’re living in a very interesting time — something of a crossroads. We suddenly have so many more options in how we can get around, with an even greater promise for the future. But we haven’t yet thought about re-allocating space in the city to fit these modes.”

“Today’s roads are based off a 100-year-old model,” he points out. “How can governments adapt and lead to re-think the model for the next 100 years?”

ITF work has indicated that if widely adopted, some forms of shared mobility could halve the number of vehicle-kilometres travelled in urban areas, and reduce urban transport CO2 emissions by 30%. Free-floating e-scooters and other forms of micro-mobility can help achieve these outcomes, but it’s crucial that governments take them seriously and recognise the potential they represent.

Cities such as Paris are well-placed to imagine and invest in the future of transport at this exciting time.

This article is part of a series on Shared Mobility in Practice, which looks at how cities around the world are incorporating innovative transport solutions in real life, today. See also: Los Angeles: Harnessing Data for Transport Innovation, and: China: Explaining Ride-Hailing’s Rapid Rise. Shared mobility is one of the transport disruptions explored in the 2019 ITF Transport Outlook.