Big city plague e-scooters? What the scooters mean for the climate

Whizzing around on an e-scooter can be a wobbly affair at first – but the bottom line is that it’s fun. Even hardened critics might agree – if they’ve ever been tempted to hop on an e-scooter, push off the ground and glide away. After all, even two and a half years after the approval for scooters in Germany, the suppliers report a high demand.

But the discussions and disputes surrounding this young means of transport have not died down. Other city dwellers have little of the driving pleasure in view of blocked sidewalks and inconsiderate users. And even from an environmental point of view, there is nothing that speaks for many experts so far to further expand the e-scooter fleets in Germany.

Collecting e-scooters has a negative impact on the environment

For example, the climate footprint is pretty poor, at least for the rental e-scooters, which are rented for rides on the street via app. This is due to the material alone, the production and the short life span, because the devices are rarely treated with care, says a study from the University of North Carolina from 2019.

According to them, the biggest negative impact would be if the scooters were collected with combustion cars for charging and then distributed around the city again. Calculated in kilometers per person, even a diesel bus is more environmentally friendly during rush hour, the authors write.

More durability should improve eco-balance

The results are already a few years old and on many points, the sharing services have made improvements. "The current generation of e-scooters now has a guaranteed life of 5+ years from the manufacturer’s side", says Sebastian Schlebusch, spokesman for the Shared Mobility platform, a lobbying association for the sharing industry. Many fleets also now have replaceable batteries, so the scooters no longer need to be collected.

In this way, the eco-balance of e-scooters can be improved, says Kay Axhausen, Professor of Transport Planning at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Short journeys are more of a burden on the environment

Axhausen and his team, however, recently outlined other weak points in their own study. They confirmed estimates that people use the publicly accessible e-scooters primarily for journeys they would otherwise have made on foot or by bicycle. So more CO2 is produced than if they had traveled the routes in the usual way.

For the study, the researchers evaluated, among other things, GPS data from 540 users in Zurich and reconstructed 65.000 trips with different means of transport. The study refers to Zurich. But Axhausen believes the results are transferable to most European cities with good public transport systems.

"Cities have to ask themselves: Is this an offer we have to have? E-scooters tend to be problematic because they don’t make much of a contribution to improving the environmental balance," says Axhausen, says Axhausen.

The researcher is not alone in this assessment. "As a rental vehicle in inner cities, where public transport networks are well developed and short distances can easily be covered on foot or by bicycle, scooters tend to have a negative impact on the environment.", wrote the Federal Environment Agency in October 2021. And a few weeks ago, the German Association of Cities called for a fleet cap for sharing providers.

Naturally, they see things differently. "Micromobility works in route chains, i.e. in connections between different means of transport, so that longer distances can be covered in combination and a private car becomes obsolete," says Schlebusch from the Shared Mobility platform.

Experts explain: Many cities lack a comprehensive traffic concept

Can e-scooters be sensibly integrated into such route chains, so that they could ultimately actually make a contribution to the traffic turnaround?? From the point of view of many experts, many cities and communities lack a comprehensive traffic concept for this so far.

"In such a transport concept, public transport must play the main role", says Manuela Weber of the oko-Institut, an environmental research institute in Berlin. It is also important that all services can be used via an app, if possible. Mobility stations" are needed at train stations, for example, where several means of transport would then be visibly available for the so-called last mile. "You always have to consider which vehicle is being replaced by what", says Weber.

"I don’t yet see any meaningful use beyond fun mobility."

The sharing association itself refers to cooperations with the S-Bahn in Stuttgart or to a pilot project at the Hochbahn in Hamburg, where e-scooter services are closely integrated with public transport.

But experts remain skeptical. "For me, it’s still an open question what role e-scooters can play in the traffic turnaround", says Wulf-Holger Arndt, a transport researcher at the Technical University of Berlin. "I don’t yet see a meaningful use beyond fun mobility."

Arndt advocates stricter rules for sharing providers and their users. "Berlin in particular is still too lax in this respect." If one follows his reasoning, cities could at least ensure that the fun of riding e-scooters is not limited to the rider. However, much greater efforts are needed to make the transport turnaround a success.

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