Are scooters green? Are their carbon emission claims valid?
A new paper by researchers at North Carolina State University was just published that aimed to answer this question.
The result was a flurry of (and clickbait-y) media articles proclaiming scooters to be not much better than automobiles in terms of carbon emissions.
Yet the actual findings of the study were much more modest than the grandiose claims made both by the study’s author’s and repeated by media outlets without much critical analysis.
The study aimed to find out the carbon impact of scooters. From the paper’s abstract: “Using life cycle assessment, we quantify the total environmental impacts of this mobility option associated with global warming, acidification, eutrophication, and respiratory impacts.”
What’s the problem?
A life cycle analysis of scooters does not “quantify the total environmental impacts” of scooters. Not even close.
Some of the most important elements that this study did not consider include the second, third order effects of dockless scooter sharing, thus created a grossly false conclusion of the environmental impacts of the new dockless scooter industry and resulted in a highly misleading media echo-chamber of scooters’ carbon footprint in outlets ranging from The Verge, LA Times, MIT Technology Review, and even somewhat in CityLab.
WHAT WE’VE LEARNED FROM CARS AND THE FIRST MISSING PIECE IN THIS “ANALYSIS”
Over the last several decades, we’ve learned a lot from cars. We’ve learned that if we want to quantify the impacts of automobiles, it is not enough to calculate the car’s carbon emissions and compare it to other modes.
Cars completely redesign cities around themselves and actually create most of the trips they “service.” They cause cities to build out and sprawl, rather than densify. They create carbon emitting trips, not just serve them. So comparing car trip emissions (even a life cycle style comparison) to other modes would not just be misleading, but would be a flagrant minimization of emissions caused by cars and car-centric cities.
Cars also build enormous amounts of infrastructure. The manpower required to engineer, build, and maintain these gargantuan roads, bridges, and highways cause enormous amounts of emissions. These factors area always emitted from simplistic life cycle analysis.
This does not even factor in other externalities of cars like the global 1.35 millions deaths and the 20-50 million injuries caused by car crashes. The tragic human misery of these senseless deaths aside, in terms of emissions, the carbon footprint of such a continuously destructive scheme is difficult to fully grasp such as the emissions associated with the medical treatments, the lost productivity, and so on. Not to mention the enormous carbon footprint of our oil wars.
Bottom line: cars have taught us that to figure out the impacts of a mode of transport, including emissions, a one to one comparison of a cradle-to-grave number crunching only gives the emissions per trip, but it DOES NOT reveal “the total environmental impacts of [a] mobility option.”
And these externalizes are the first things missing from this scooters v cars emissions analysis. The authors did not even consider treating trips that cars created (and related emissions) differently than other modes, the emissions created from the building and maintenance of car infrastructure, or the emissions caused by the massive externalizes of automobiles such as deaths, injuries, war, etc.
EXPLOSION OF MICROMOBILITY SALES
The first effect of scooters was revealed almost as soon as scooter sharing companies started expanding in 2018: a dramatic increase in sales of scooter and other micromobility.
Have A Go was founded before the explosion of dockless scooters on the thesis that we were seeing a new class of vehicle hardware emerging, electric bikes, scooters, skateboards, unicycles, bike/car hybrids, etc, and that this new class of vehicle had the power of replacing cars as primary urban mode of transportation. Before dockless scooters, electric micromobility did not even have a name, so we started calling this new class “lightweight electric vehicles” or LEVs (not very sexy).
But brands and manufacturers were quite niche. These existence of vehicles was definitely not known and our mission was to help increase their adoption.
Then came the dockless scooter explosion. And in just a few months, we started seeing “Sold Out” on Amazon and on numerous manufacturer’s pages.
Dockless scooters were founded on the rental/sharing model, not ownership. Yet they served as the biggest marketing campaign for private micromobility anyone could have ever asked for.
And why is this important?
Because ownership has nowhere near the footprint of today’s scooter sharing. Owners of the Xiaomi m365 use their scooters for months if not years without replacing them. By contrast, the m365 breaks down in a few weeks when shared and need to be replaced. This scooter churn consists of a whopping 50% of the emissions that the life cycle analysis identified. Ownership mostly eliminates this source of emissions.
And another 43% of emissions of scooter sharing comes from the collection for charging and rebalancing. Ownership does not have charging/rebalancing emissions associated with them either.
Some micromobility providers are also experimenting with a monthly subscription model. This gives customers the perks of not needing to maintain their scooters while keeping much of the ownership upside of reduced wear and tear.
So while the VCs that funded scooter sharing and micromobility providers themselves did not intend to cause a flourishing of a super low-carbon industry via sales, they did.
Micromobility use and ownership is one of those virtuous or vicious cycle type phenomena. As more people adopt, safety increases, infrastructure grows, and even more people adopt. The less people on two wheels, the less safety and infrastructure there will be.
So the life cycle analysis did not take this most crucial factor of scooter sharing’s impact on overall micromobility sales and the enormous positive network effect of the spike of scooter adoption into account. It made no mention of it in the discussion section of the paper either.
Yes such effects are harder to calculate. But they are the real story here.
INCREASED PUBLIC TRANSIT USE
For years now, the most carbon heavy country in the world per capita, the US, has seen declines in public transportation and our baseline was terrible to begin with.
Short of a massive movement to improve, expand transit and change car culture, it’s has been hard to imagine how the US, and much of the rest of the world can get off its car addiction and shift to public transit.
For decades, transit agencies bemoaned the first/last mile problem of transit, especially in newer, sprawling cities where creating transit lines in all parts of the city was just not affordable. How to bridge the gap between transit stations and where people are and want to go?
Enter scooter sharing.
Having an electrified set of wheels within app’s reach, transit suddenly became much more accessible to millions of people.
Are people actually using them for transit access?
It’s early days for dockless micromobility AND cities’ artificial caps on scooters has kept their numbers and potential for transit access quite low.
Yet even so, anecdotally, seeing scooters at bus and rail stations is now a common sight. This trend and the future potential is enormously hopeful.
Transit is also one of those virtuous or vicious cycle type phenomena. As more people adopt, there are more funds and there is more political will to increase investment in transit frequency and network expansion. The less people riding trains and buses, the less safety and infrastructure there will be. And, most disturbingly, if ridership is low enough, as LA shows, transit can shift from a climate champion to an emissions liability.
Again, this paper nor the discussions in and around it addressed this massively important issue.
This North Carolina State University study also used an incredibly poor assumption without even acknowledging that they did so: consumer-grade scooters.
Half the emissions cited were caused by scooter churn. This is because the first scooters used was hardware that wasn’t meant for sharing as we noted above.
We’re not big fans of the arguments that the free market will solve everything. But in this case, scooter emissions due to high churn rates are directly tied to a lack of profits in the industry: scooter providers paying more to repair and replace their scooters than are earning from ride fees. This problem has been recognized in the industry for months and both providers and manufacturers have been innovating in much better hardware.
From much more robust scooters like the Bird Zero, One, and Two to the inherently robust Vespa or moped style form factors like the Revel or Scoot offerings or the Bird Cruiser, we’re already starting to see the fruits of this innovation and thus will see subsequent declines in emissions associated with scooter manufacturing.
And this innovation has been extremely rapid. While small gains in car efficiency and emissions reduction takes decades (which is what the study compared emissions to), scooters are much, much easier to improve. So emissions trend-line is yet another thing this study didn’t take into consideration.
We’re also seeing an explosion in innovation on the ownership side as well. As sales boom, previously niche companies with very limited budgets now able to have the cash and/or can raise capital to innovate.
The authors of this paper chose to study emissions of the entire scooter sharing industry based on the first generation consumer grade hardware. Yet at the same time as they were working on this study, the industry was already talking about and producing next generation ruggedized hardware. So without even taking into account all of the above factors mentioned above, the conclusions of the study were already obsolete on arrival.
And yet media outlets chose to publish these results.
Just how scientific or useful is a study when its conclusions are no longer valid in just few months?
If this life cycle analysis was simply a life cycle analysis, it wouldn’t have been inaccurate. It would have affirmed with data that some in the industry had already showed with back of the envelope calculations of manufacturing and fleet management emissions. It would have pushed the industry to do better.
But the study did much more than that. It claimed to calculate total impact of the scooter sharing industry on emissions without factoring in the absolutely biggest variables that scooter sharing has impacted and will continue impacting.
And it lead a flurry of media claims about scooters that were terribly misguided at best and willfully misrepresentative at worst.
This isn’t science. And it isn’t helpful, especially in an age of climate breakdown.