In the pursuit of shared mobility, electric scooters are making a ubiquitous appearance across urban spaces in Europe and North America, with startups behind these vehicles pushing billion-dollar valuations in record time. People, especially millennials, are increasingly enamored by this low-cost and off-beat means of travel, increasing adoption levels and causing a strain on existing road infrastructure that was not designed to accommodate the e-scooter frenzy.
The German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) came out with a study on e-scooters that scrutinizes the impact of these new-age vehicles, concluding that they do not contribute positively to the current traffic situation and might end up increasing carbon emissions in the long run.
In an urban setting, the primary cause of traffic congestion is privately owned cars that take up the bulk of road and curb space. For any alternative mobility system to have an impact on traffic and overall carbon emissions in a city, it is critical for it to displace cars from the streets.
However, in regard to e-scooters, their primary users skews to the younger generation and the economic class that cannot afford to privately own a car. This is a part of the demographic that usually commutes via public transport systems, and displacing them would only result in putting more vehicles on the road, while not affecting the number of cars within the city boundaries – further deteriorating air quality.
Germany's capital Berlin is now the ground zero of e-scooter experimentation in the country, after the German government approved this mode of transport for road traffic in June 2019. Data gained from the Berlin e-scooter ecosystem show that people cover roughly about two kilometers (1.25 miles) on an e-scooter, and this is predominantly done during evenings and weekends.
It is evident from the trend that e-scooters have yet to find relevance as a transit system for daily commuting, and are essentially used for a joy-ride – in the absence of which, the users would have used a public transport system, biked or simply walked to their destination. This observation can be collaborated with the results of a survey conducted in Paris, where over 4,000 users of rental e-scooters were questioned on their reasons to adopt e-bikes.
Nearly 47 percent of the respondents stated that they would have walked to the destination if not for the e-scooter option, 29 percent would have used public transport and 9 percent would have opted for a bicycle. Only 8 percent of the respondents mentioned that they would have used a car or a taxi ride to get to their destination in the absence of an e-scooter.
Germany also has an issue with road infrastructure, as e-scooters do not have dedicated lanes to travel on. For now, the country prohibits e-scooters on sidewalks and asks them to be ridden in cycling lanes. Riders must also be at least 14 years of age, and the e-scooter companies need to insure their vehicles and also have an insurance badge for verification.
If this is a means of transport that might become more mainstream, the German government will be under pressure to provide road infrastructure to suit an e-scooter's needs. Cities can do their bit by increasing curb parking rates and consciously reducing public parking lots to encourage car users to adopt alternative mobility.
Vandalism is another issue that cities need to contend with, as acts of deliberate damage have been reported widely on e-scooters. Most of the first generation e-scooters were also not designed for rugged use; many broke down while being ridden at high speeds or over cobblestone streets – a regular feature in European cities like Paris or Vienna. Broken bikes are strewn around public walkways, which irritates pedestrians and locals.
However, e-scooter companies are not overly concerned, because it is easier to manufacture a new bike than to fix a broken one. Eventually, this adds up to be a severe problem for the environment, because the batteries that power these e-bikes are not easy to recycle, and also create significant carbon emissions while they are manufactured.
All this apart, there are not enough studies to verify the average life of a shared e-scooter, with unconfirmed figures coming out of different cities showing life spans that range between a month to a year for newer and robust models. This puts the business models of e-scooter companies in the spotlight, as they will not attain economies of scale if their vehicles do not last more than a few months on average. Cities need to be proactive and create regulations on safe disposal of broken vehicles and also look to curb licenses and e-scooter numbers to make sure their streets do not descend into chaos.
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