They not only annoy city dwellers but also pollute the environment: the sustainability myth of electric scooters

2021. augusztus 18.

Just because something is electrically-powered, does not necessarily make it sustainable. This is exponentially true for rentable electric scooters, which are less capable of reducing car traffic than expected but far more capable of frightening pedestrians.

For three years now, following the example of several other major cities in the world, the Hungarian capital has been flooded with “dockless” electric scooters. This means of transport is mostly the invention of start-ups who, as they state, have a double mission: on the one hand, they reform transport, and on the other hand, they provide an environmentally friendly alternative to driving in town centres.

They are easy to use: the user grabs his smartphone, activates the scooter with an app, rides for a couple of hundred meters, and then leaves it so that the next user can jump on it. The position of the scooters can be tracked in the app, so you always know where you can do a bit of scooting.

The system is very user-friendly, so scooter start-ups in various cities have elevated the scooter from being considered to be a toy in the past, to a real means of transportation. Although they gained general dislike at record speeds in some cities, they spread just as quickly in other cities. However, the latter result benefits companies only – but what about the environment?


It is not motorists who use them

Although there is still insufficient data on how electric scooters can contribute to sustainability in the long run, the German environmental agency, the Umweltbundesamt (UBA), published a study in 2019 claiming that, for the time being, the answer is “not much”. According to the organisation, the problem is not with the scooters themselves, as their ecological footprint is obviously smaller than that of cars.

The problem starts with the way they are used: even start-ups admit that scooters only reduce CO2 emissions if they replace the use of cars, but people tend to scoot instead of walking, cycling or using public transport, leading to the exact opposite effect.

While a few hundred meters of walking releases virtually no pollutants into the air, in the case of scooters, it comes to 126 grams per kilometre, which is many times that of traditional cycling. The production, transport and recharging of scooters all require valuable energy using vehicles run with fossil fuel.


They can only be used for a few weeks

And they do need to be transported: as The Verge put it in 2019, “scooter companies can be glad if their equipment lasts for three days,” and according to Quartz, scooters run for just four weeks on average. This is a huge cost for companies and a heavy burden on the environment: just think of the lithium used for the batteries, not to mention other raw materials, transportation and energy used.

So, companies have to allow for serious depreciation, constantly making up for losses, while users prefer to use the scooters for fun instead of substituting car journeys. This harmful behaviour is only exacerbated by the fact that scooters are scattered in the city centres, although according to the UBA, the smart solution would be to place them in the suburbs or in the countryside, where it really takes a long time to get to the nearest station, that is, where there is an increased probability that people will use a car, thereby increasing their ecological footprint.

Regarding production, researchers at North Carolina State University published a study in 2019 that in the case of Lime’s first-generation scooters, half of the calculated 202 grams/mile is released into the air during production, so it does matter how long a scooter is in operation. Most of the remaining source of pollution, 43 percent, is generated during charging.

Dangerous scooters and users

On top of all that, not all electric scooters are safe. In 2021, the Mechanical and Electrical Laboratory of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology tested eight scooters, five of which were found to be of adequate quality. According to a statement they issued, one of the remaining three was flammable, one could pinch the user's finger, and one posed a potential hazard due to the loose front wheel.

In addition to technical shortcomings, users also play a role in the fact that scooters are relatively frequent in accident statistics and news. Many users pop on the scooters in the evening, for example after heavy drinking. Authorities in Oslo made no secret as to why they banned the rental and use of community scooters at night in 2021.

It is important to emphasize, of course, that we cannot blame the scooters for everything, as they could be environmentally friendly. If charging is covered by wind turbines or solar panels, and people jump onto a scooter instead of using a car, then over time, not only start-up investors could be happy with the returns, but our environment would benefit as well.

To this end, however, both manufacturers and users need to be educated - and it would be vital to collect as much data as possible, as although there are scooters everywhere, there is still little research on their effects.


Cover: Getty Images