How Sustainable Are E-Scooters?

We are in the midst of an urban transportation revolution, with a shift from hydrocarbon-fed vehicles to electric ones. We're seeing new converts to cycling courtesy of electric bikes, and now electric scooters descending on our streets and footpaths. It's hard to not spot this change if you are in one of the many cities running long-term trials, with competing operators jostling for position, and rows of scooters standing ready on the streets each morning waiting expectantly. The growth of ride-share schemes has exploded in recent years, as technological innovation meets local governments who are actively looking for ways to reduce congestion and improve access to transportation.

While electric forms of transportation and ride-share schemes seem a perfect fit for a society struggling to adopt more sustainable practices, there continue to be concerns around their safety and occupying of public space. I'm not going to wade into those topics here though. Instead, let's take a look at another aspect of concern that hasn't been getting much attention in New Zealand (where I am based) - their environmental sustainability. I'm going to zoom in on greenhouse gas emissions as a proxy for overall environmental impact, just to make the analysis a bit easier.

Assumption #1: Electric vehicles are environmentally friendly because they don't use fossil fuels....right?

It's worth unpacking the assumptions around electric scooter ride share schemes, as they are most commonly rolled out in the pilots. First up, electric vehicles are environmentally friendly because they don't use fossil fuels right? Well yes, and no. Their use of electricity means that emissions per km travelled will be lower than those for a car, but the actual volume of emissions will depend on how each country generates its electricity. In New Zealand electricity is pretty clean, with renewable generation at 84.1% in the past year. So yes, riding electric scooters in NZ is pretty clean.

But here's the kicker: Emissions from riding an e-scooter are only a tiny part of the emissions linked to operating a ride share scheme. These schemes are offering us end-to-end mobility services, so they also handle scooter sourcing, drop off in handy locations, charging, repair, and replacement - all so you don't have to. But by doing so, they are also taking on the responsibility for the impacts of those activities.

Some of those steps in the value chain have a pretty big influence on whether your scooter ride is really helping you to reduce your CO2 footprint. First up are the emissions linked to mining the materials needed for the scooter, like lithium. Then you need to factor in the emissions linked to processing the materials into components, and then into the final product. A recent estimate by Chester Energy and Policy of the carbon emissions linked to electric scooter production put the total at around 209kg of CO2 per scooter. You can see from this that durability i.e. lifetime of the scooters is a critical factor when looking at CO2 emissions - the longer the scooter lasts, the lower the manufacturing-related emissions per km you travel. Secondly, there are emissions linked to the activity of e-scooter 'juicers' who collect scooters with flat batteries for recharging, and those that need repairing or relocating. Most of this activity is done with a car, or more likely something a bit bigger. Those vehicles are likely to be petrol or diesel-fueled, so we need to account for those CO2 emissions too. The analysis by Chester Energy and Policy found that inefficient 'juicer' activity i.e. travelling 10 miles to pickup, charge and drop off 5 scooters per night, increased the lifetime emissions for a scooter by a whooping 33%.

As the graph above shows, the CO2 emissions from riding a scooter are just a small piece of the puzzle. And with limited or nonexistent sharing of data on e-scooter durability and working lifetimes from the pilot schemes, there is concern that we are ignoring the elephant in the room in terms of CO2 emissions. Few cities are requiring e-scooter operators to share data that can help us understand their environmental impacts, but Louisville, Kentucky is one. Numbers crunched by website 'Oversharing' showed that e-scooters on those streets had an alarming median lifetime of only 23 days (although note this was a trial using were early generation scooters less suitable for ride share). Those results may or may not be representative of what's going on in your city, but the problem is that most councils are not asking for this information. The tendency for getting quickly to market via pilots means that e-scooter schemes are typically launching with low-quality product that doesn't last.

Assumption #2: Electric Scooter Ride Share Schemes are shifting people away from using private vehicles

The second assumption worth digging into is whether e-scooter ride shares are actually helping achieve what is called 'modal shift', in particular shifting people from private car use to e-scooter use. Ride share schemes like to claim that they are a more environmentally-friendly form of transport - but what if they are mostly helping shift walkers or public transport users to e-scooters? If that is the case, then they are not only supporting a switch from low-carbon options to a higher-carbon option, but they might also be discouraging healthy activities like walking and cycling. Again, the availability of data from pilot schemes is critical to understanding what is going on, and determining if these schemes are lower impact or not. The very real danger is that within the central city, most of these e-scooter trips are replacing low-carbon options and are therefore helping to increase emissions in cities.

If you don't ask, you don't get

As with most sustainability challenges, transparency is the key to understanding the impact of e-scooter schemes. However, to-date few cities have included requirements for data on scooter lifetime, repairs, juicing operations etc which would enable us to better understand the impacts (and differences between operators). The focus, understandably has been on proving safety, but it makes sense for cities to incorporate environmental metrics at the same time. Portland, Oregon, is one of the few cities who have included a requirement for e-scooter ride share schemes to conduct a full 'Life Cycle Assessment' which looks into environmental impacts. While initially this will help us all to understand how important manufacture, riding, juicing etc are for overall environmental impact, the focus will need to shift to looking at what the operators are actually doing to minimise their impacts. There is a huge difference between best and worst-practice operators in this space, and shining a light on performance will help to shift behaviour. Collecting data on e-scooter lifetime and repairs would be a great place to start.

Always look at the 'Big Picture'

E-Scooter ride share schemes are a great example of why adopting a 'value chain' approach to sustainability is so important in the 21st century. Our supply chains are global and complex, and many social and environmental impacts linked to products and services occur out of sight and away from where they are consumed. These impacts can become risks to your organisation, but can also be turned into opportunities to drive positive impact and differentiate in the market.

The situation with e-scooters shows the need to adopt a 'value chain' approach in order to show credible action on sustainability. Offsetting CO2 emissions linked to scooter use only addresses a small part of the puzzle. Authentic action needs to include not only use, but durability, repairability, and juicing activities.

These learnings are applicable to your business too. Customers no longer accept that an organisation's responsibilities to do good are limited to what it can do within its own four walls. By applying a 'value chain' approach you can engage with your supply chain partners and customers to create better products and to improve sustainability where impact is greatest.

Note: Image icons sourced from Thanks to Iconsphere, @w@n !cons, Dicron Studio, Bharat, David. This article first appeared on Linkedin.