E-scooters — The good, the bad, and the ugly

A good idea turned bad, or a bad idea that could turn good?

As shared electric scooters continue to make headlines around the world, it’s becoming increasingly important that we understand the impact this new mode of transportation brings with it. At a glance, they’re fun to ride and offer an alternative mode of transport, potentially reducing traffic congestion in cities. Yet, it has become quite commonplace to find these scooters littering public places, thrown in rivers, and often broken by vandals. With this in mind, let’s explore what these scooters really bring to the table, and why they may not be the miracle solution that they were promised to be, and what needs to change for them to become truly beneficial.

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The ugly

Perhaps the most surprising thing about shared e-scooters is that their environmental impact is currently much higher than the modes of transportation they tend to replace. While they are often advertised as a replacement for cars and a solution to traffic congestion, it turns out that most users of these shared services were initially not car drivers. For instance, a 2019 survey of the residents of Brussels, Belgium, found that only 26.7% of users were doing so instead of taking their car, with the rest being split mostly between public transport, walking, and biking. This trend is not exclusive to Europe either, as a study by the City of Portland, in the United States, found that only about a third of its citizens would have used a car or a ride-sharing service if not for e-scooters. As a result of this, e-scooters perform comparatively worse than the modes of transportation they are replacing, with electric scooters causing an estimated 131g of CO₂ equivalent per passenger kilometre, versus 110g for the modes of transportation they are replacing. What’s even worse, in many cases this performance can be beaten by cars if driven in a less aggressive manner. As most of the emissions come from the materials and the manufacturing of the scooters, it comes as no surprise that the main cause of the high environmental impact is their short life span. While it would take a minimum of 9.5 months for scooters to become comparatively more sustainable, their expected lifespan at the moment can be as low as a few weeks!

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The bad

The City of Montreal, Canada, recently announced they would ban e-scooters after a failed pilot project that found more than 80% of scooters parked improperly, with at least one instance of a Lime scooter ending up in a river. Not alone in finding scooters obnoxious, and potentially dangerous, other cities and countries are taking similar measures. Nashville in the United States has also outright banned rental companies from operating in the city, and Singapore, France, Spain, and many others have banned riders from pedestrian paths. With riders often being seen as rule-breakers, the future of e-scooters remains uncertain in many cities.

These issues are also linked to questions of accessibility. Studies have shown certain groups to be much more vulnerable than others to e-scooters. Of the pedestrians injured by e-scooters, 75% were found to be under 14 or above 60 years old. Besides, not everyone is able to scoot around obstacles. Elderly people, those with impaired vision, or wheelchair users may find themselves at an impasse when coming across what are sometimes literal piles of scooters.

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The good

All the aforementioned issues are a direct issue to the profitability of e-scooter companies. As of now, none of the new rental companies has been successful in making a profit, despite billions of dollars in investments. In order to remain afloat, solutions will have to be found to reduce vandalism, increase the lifespan of e-scooters, and get users to follow the rules so that cities stop restricting or banning their use. One can see how brittle these companies currently are, as they were rapidly forced to make use of mass layoffs and exit multiple markets when the current crisis reduced the number of daily users in many countries. The existence of companies like Bird and Lime depends entirely on solving the problems that currently make e-scooters problematic from environmental and social perspectives.

Thankfully, these companies are aware of this, and are already investing in new scooters that ought to last longer, and finding innovative ways to nudge people towards having the right behaviour. Whether or not these are successful moves remains to be seen, but at least things are moving in what is seemingly the right direction. If these don’t work though, and companies start going under, then one can only wonder what will happen to the thousands upon thousands of units that are currently littered around the world’s cities. It’s already unsustainable when most units don’t last very long, but what happens when all of them have to be thrown out or recycled at the same time?

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