How sustainable are e-scooters really?

Electric scooter sharing has become extremely popular in the last years, providing an environmentally friendly mode of transport in many major cities. But when viewed from a full life-cycle perspective, they may not be as sustainable as you might think.

Since bikes and scooters are certainly greener alternatives to cars, the proliferation of  e-scooters comes as no surprise. They provide a relatively cheap, convenient, and flexible way to quickly get around increasingly congested cities, and are fun to drive. Just open the app on your phone to find one near you, enjoy the ride to your destination, and leave it for the next person to use.

However, e-scooter companies face a number of sustainability challenges: the short lifespan of the vehicles, the pollution from trips taken to collect the electric scooters so that they can be charged, and the power used for charging.

Short lifespan

One downside to this mode of transport lies in the low durability as well as vandalism. The Boston Consulting Group lists a lifespan of only one to three months. Current scooters are designed for private use, and can´t withstand the wear and tear of a rental system. Without a sense of ownership, many scooter riders simply fail to treat them with respect. The result is often scooters being haphazardly ridden and abandoned, or dumped in rivers and lakes. The Guardian reported nearly 100 scooters found dumped in a California lake within two months last year.

Frequent replacement not only costs the provider, but the environment. Scooters and batteries are manufactured in and shipped from China, eating up resources and increasing transport emissions. The plan is to redesign scooters to make them more durable and batteries last longer in the near future, however they will likely still be made in and shipped from China.

Energy source

The source of energy which the scooters are being charged with also plays an important role. As with all electric vehicles,  if the fuel is not from a renewable resource, it doesn´t really add up. Some companies are already announcing the purchase of renewable energy credits and carbon offsets to mitigate the non-renewable energy used to deliver and charge its scooters.

Trucks pick up scooters

The job of collecting all the scooters at night in order to repair and charge them is usually not done with an electric vehicle. Scooters are deposited all over a city and sometimes in geographically challenging locations. Emissions from these trips with pick up trucks can add up quite quickly, along with the spare parts needed for repairs.

When replacing the use of a car, it´s quite clear that the electric scooter is the cleaner option. But when scooters replace walking, which is resource and emission free, the roles are reversed. Sheer laziness should not be a reason to be wasteful.

Companies are now working on full life-cycle analyses in order to better understand their carbon footprint, and exactly how much e-scooters are improving the sustainability of transportation in cities. One step is understanding  how many of the trips taken on scooters replace a car ride, rather than helping someone who would have walked go a little faster. The company Bird, for example, is working with MIT to find the best way to study that question.

Photo by Brett Sayles via Pexels

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