The first fleets lasted only 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. “Depreciation of lithium-ion batteries plus manufacturing emissions over 200 trips rather than 2,000 trips does not look good,” says Matute.
Then there are the needs for your own scooter transportation. Traditionally, they rely on small batteries that need frequent charging, usually by people hired to pick up the scooters, drive them out of town to charge them, and drop them off the next morning. Drivers are also used to reallocate the fleet when too many scooters are left in an area where they will not realistically be used.
Combine these production and operational emissions and you have the largest share of the rental program’s environmental impact. The researchers of the North Carolina study calculated that 93 percent of the shared scooter’s carbon footprint falls into these categories. (Scooter rental fees account for only 5 percent of its total emissions.)
But it does mean that there are obvious ways that operators can reduce the emissions of their rental programs: for example, with new approaches to the collection and distribution of their fleet. In a follow-up study in Paris, one of its researchers, Anne de Bortoli, found that by transporting scooters in electric vehicles and optimizing routes, operators can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 55 percent. City officials have encouraged scooter operators to make these changes, who have begun placing more emphasis on green credentials and life-cycle analysis when deciding whether to issue a license.
Companies are also making their scooters more durable. Between 60 and 70 percent of scooter operators — including European giants like Tier and Bolt — source their scooters from Segway-Ninebot or Okai, and both companies have worked to design more robust and durable products. Even Okai’s entry-level model, the scooter of choice for cash-strapped operators, is expected to last around two years. “Anything with a short shelf life has been kicked out of our portfolio,” says Tony Günther, Okai’s head of e-commerce.
Some operators – namely Superpedestrian, Lime and Bird – have gone a step further by designing industrial-grade models in-house. Everything about today’s scooters is “built for longevity of shared use,” says Andrew Savage, head of sustainability at Lime. The company’s latest scooter is expected to cover around 20,000 kilometers over at least five years, but there is a possibility that it will be more. Bird expects its equivalent, known as Tri, to cover at least 10,000 kilometers in the same time period.
Other companies, such as Voi and Lime, are also introducing replaceable batteries. Instead of lugging the scooter around to charge, they just move the batteries, which also have a higher capacity, reducing the number of trips needed to keep their fleet powered. “You can take a Bird Three and launch it in a good city, like Los Angeles,” says Rushforth, “and you probably won’t have to revisit that scooter for seven or even 10 days.” (Bird’s first in-house model, the Zero, would normally be three.)
But as it stands, the eco-credits of most scooter rental programs are nebulous. Despite recent improvements flagged by operators, they are still eager to discover how the scooters are manufactured, what their current life cycles are, and how they are collected, charged and distributed. On the other hand, since the scooter rental market is developing so quickly, it is difficult 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 the Xiaomi M365, which had long been considered unfit for purpose.) “A study from a year ago, two or three years ago is ancient history in this industry,” says Savage.
It is clear that the industry is developing rapidly and that scooter rental emissions will improve over time. The bigger unknown is whether we can improve the transportation methods they replace. In major cities like Paris, New York and London, for example, where there is efficient public transport, scooters will struggle to be the greenest way to get around. According to Reck, who worked on the study in Zurich, scooters are often present in city centers, where there is a lot of traffic. But these are areas that are already well served by public transport.
“At the moment we have a problem that scooter companies are not present in the periphery, because it doesn’t make economic sense,” he says. But get rental scooters to places where they’re more likely to replace gasoline and diesel cars, and they might finally live up to their early environmental promise.
Updated 7-7-2022 6:15 pm ET: This story has been corrected to say that Voi, not Bird, uses replaceable batteries.