Are shared e-scooters actually good for the environment?

Electric scooters in use in Santa Monica, California. Image: Getty.

Shared dockless electric scooters, or e-scooters, transport riders over short distances in cities. Ride share companies promote them as an environmentally friendly choice that reduces dependence on cars.

To properly assess these claims, it’s important to consider all relevant environmental factors, including the materials and energy required to manufacture scooters, the impacts of collecting them daily for charging and redistributing, and the electricity that charges their batteries.

I study methods for assessing environmental impacts of products and materials. In a newly published study, I show that e-scooter programs may have larger total environmental impacts than the transportation modes they displace. But if cities update their policies and mobility companies tweak some of their practices, there are opportunities to make e-scooters a greener option.

The electric scooter boom

Anyone who lives in a city or near a college campus has probably seen e-scooters. Designed for short-distance travel, these devices have a small electric motor and deck on which a single person stands. Ride share companies such as Bird and Lime rent out scooters by the minute, and riders leave them at their final destination to be claimed by the next user or picked up later for charging.

In 2017 these programs were rare, but in 2018 riders took an estimated 38.5 million trips on e-scooters. These devices fill a singular niche for some people, solving the “last mile problem” – the last leg of a trip, which sometimes can be the most difficult, since it may mean walking home from a bus stop or train station. Scooters are an alternative to driving and parking a personal automobile, and often are cheaper than a taxi or Uber.

“Your ride was carbon free” – really?

The transportation sector generates nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and a large share of smog and asthma-inducing pollutants. With no tailpipes to spew emissions, it would be easy to assume that shared e-scooters are an environmentally preferable option. E-scooter companies often tout the environmental benefits of their “carbon-free” and “earth-friendly” rides.

Screen shot from an e-scooter user’s smart phone at the end of a ride. 

To support these claims, Lime has pledged to purchase renewable energy credits to cover the electricity it uses for charging and carbon offsets for their operations. Bird purchases renewable energy credits and carbon offsets to cover electricity and scooter pick-up and drop-off.

Environmental claim from Bird’s web site.

However, claims of a full carbon-free ride don’t hold up when all of the actions required to have an e-scooter ready, at the right location and charged for use are considered. With North Carolina State University engineering students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland, I turned to a life cycle approach to fill in the gaps.

Hidden impacts

Chinese electronics company Xiaomi manufactures many of the e-scooters used in the United States. To understand what materials go into each scooter, we took one apart and inventoried the 13 pounds of aluminum, 2.5-pound lithium-ion battery, electric motor and various plastic and steel parts.

Manufacturing these scooters and other electronic products has effects at the mine site, the smelter and the factory. For e-scooters, we calculated that these production impacts often exceed half of the total impacts caused by each mile of travel on a scooter.

Shipping e-scooters from China to the U.S., however, has a trivial effect, thanks to the efficiency of the global transportation network.

North Carolina State University students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland disassemble an e-scooter to create a material inventory. Image: Jeremiah Johnson/creative commons.

E-scooter companies employ independent contractors to collect, charge and redistribute the scooters to desirable locations. Lime calls these folks “Juicers”. Their counterparts at Bird are “Chargers”, and they distribute the fully charged scooters into Nests.

These collectors typically drive their personal automobiles to round up as many scooters as they can, then charge them at home and return them the next day. The logistics are not optimised, which leads to unnecessary driving on the hunt for scooters. We found that this mileage can generate over 40 per cent of the total environmental impacts of e-scooter use.

In contrast, powering e-scooters requires relatively little energy. Charging a fully depleted e-scooter battery uses about as much electricity as running an average clothes dryer for five minutes. And most e-scooter batteries are nowhere near fully depleted when picked up, particularly in cities that require companies to remove scooters from the streets each night. In Raleigh, we found that about one out of six scooters were over 95 per cent charged at the end of the day, but were still picked up for nightly charging.


Vancouver’s plan to achieve carbon-free transportation by 2050 includes urban design and mobility pricing as well as vehicle choices.

Other ways to get there

It is important to consider what e-scooters are displacing when quantifying their relative effects on the environment. Surveys show that about one-third of e-scooter rides replace automobile use, while nearly half of scooter users would have walked or biked instead. About 10 per cent would have taken public transit, and the remaining 7 per cent or 8 per cent would not have made the trip at all.

Our study found that driving a car is almost always less environmentally friendly than using an e-scooter. When only one-third of e-scooter rides displace automobile travel, then the use of e-scooters likely increases overall transportation emissions by drawing people away from walking, biking or taking public transit. However, if e-scooters were to displace car rides half the time, we would expect them to be a net win for the environment on average.


Lightening scooters’ footprint

Our research highlights several ways to make these scooters more sustainable. Using e-scooters that are designed to be more durable can reduce environmental impacts from the materials used to build them on a per-mile traveled basis. Improving collection and distribution processes could reduce driving distances, and companies could use more fuel-efficient vehicles to collect the scooters. For their part, cities could allow scooters to be left out overnight and only picked up when their batteries are depleted.

For now, however, a scooter ride that doesn’t replace a car trip is unlikely to be a net win for the planet.

Jeremiah Johnson, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, North Carolina State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.