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Escooter Rentals Aren’t as Green as You Think

Early fleets lasted just a few months, even in the best cases. And with their aluminum frames and lithium-ion batteries, replacing them meant emitting a lot more carbon. “Amortizing lithium-ion batteries plus the manufacturing emissions over 200 trips rather than 2,000 trips doesn’t look good,” Matute says.

Then there’s the scooters’ own transport needs. They’ve traditionally relied on small batteries that need to be charged often, normally by people hired to pick up the scooters, drive them out of town for charging, and drop them off the following morning. Drivers are also used to redistribute the fleet when too many scooters are left in an area where they’re not realistically going to be used.

Combine these manufacturing and operational emissions and you account for the bulk of a rental program’s environmental impact. The researchers of the North Carolina study calculated that 93 percent of a shared scooter’s carbon footprint falls into these categories. (Charging a rental escooter accounts for just 5 percent of its overall emissions.)

But this means that there are obvious ways that operators can reduce the emissions of their rental programs: for instance, with novel approaches to collecting and distributing their fleet. In a follow-up to the Paris study, one of its researchers, Anne de Bortoli, found that by transporting escooters in electric vehicles and optimizing routes, operators could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 55 percent. Escooter operators have been encouraged to make these changes by city officials, who’ve started to place more emphasis on green credentials and lifecycle analysis when deciding whether to grant a license.

Companies are also making their scooters last longer. Between 60 and 70 percent of escooter operators—including European giants like Tier and Bolt—source their scooters from either Segway-Ninebot or Okai, and both companies have worked to design more robust and durable products. Even Okai’s basic model, the choice of scooter for cash-strapped operators, is expected to last around two years. “Everything with a short lifespan was cut out of our portfolio,” says Tony Günther, Okai’s head of ecommerce.

Some operators—namely Superpedestrian, Lime, and Bird—have gone a step further by designing industry-grade models in-house. Everything about today’s scooters are “built for shared-use longevity,” says Andrew Savage, head of sustainability at Lime. The company’s latest escooter is expected to cover around 20,000 kilometers over at least five years, but there’s a possibility that it’ll be more. Bird expects its equivalent, known as the Threeto cover a minimum of 10,000 kilometers over the same time frame.

Other companies, such as Voi and Lime, are also introducing swappable batteries. Instead of lugging around scooters for recharging they’re just moving batteries, which also have bigger capacity, reducing the number of trips required to keep their fleets powered. “You can take a Bird Three and launch it in a good city, like Los Angeles,” says Rushforth, “and you probably don’t need to visit that scooter again for seven or even 10 days.” (Bird’s first in-house model, the Zero, would typically go three.)

But as it stands, the eco credentials of most scooter rental programs are foggy. Despite recent improvements that operators have flagged, they’re still cagey about disclosing how scooters are manufactured, what their current life cycles are, and how they’re collected, charged, and distributed. On the other hand, because the scooter rental market has been evolving so quickly, it’s hard to extrapolate the conclusions of existing research to determine how green these programs will be in the future. (In the North Carolina study, for example, the team took apart and analyzed a Xiaomi M365, which has long been deemed unfit for purpose.) “A study of one year ago, two years ago, or three years ago is ancient history in this industry,” says Savage.

It’s clear that the industry is developing rapidly and that scooter rental emissions will improve over time. A bigger unknown is whether we can improve the transport methods that they replace. In major cities like Paris, New York, and London, for example, where there’s efficient public transport, escooters are going to struggle to be the greenest way of getting around. According to Reck, who worked on the Zurich study, escooters are often present in city centers, where there is high footfall. But these are areas already well served by public transport.

“At the moment we have the problem that scooter companies are not present in the outskirts, because it doesn’t make sense economically,” he says. But get rental escooters into places where they’re more likely to displace petrol and diesel fueled cars, and they could finally live up to their early ecopromise.

Updated 7-7-2022 6:15 pm ET: This story was corrected to state that Voi, not Bird, is using swappable batteries.

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