What is the true cost of micromobility?

A new study has found that e-bikes and scooters may emit more emissions than the journeys they replace – Alex Ballinger explores the potential limits of micromobile cities

“In the way they are currently used, shared e-scooters and e-bikes do the climate more harm than good,” is the stark warning from a researcher behind a new study into micromobility schemes in Zurich, Switzerland. The study, carried out by experts at the Institute for Transport Planning and Systems at ETH Zurich university, delved into climate impacts of shared transport in the city. 

While exploring the emissions in Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous city with 1.5 million residents in the metropolitan area, the researchers collected data sets from 540 people aged between 18 to 65, including GPS tracks, booking data, and survey answers, to find trends in shared transport use, and the results were eye-opening. “Operating e-scooters and e-bikes seems climate-friendly at first glance, because they do not use internal combustion engines,” said Reck, a doctoral researcher at ETH Zurich. 

Based on their research, Reck and his colleagues found that shared e-scooters and e-bikes in Zurich, including the fleet run by shared transport platform Tier,  primarily replace more sustainable modes of transport like walking, cycling and public transport, emitting more carbon than the journeys they replace. 

However, this picture was reversed in the case of private e-scooters and e-bikes in the city, which often replace trips made by car, according to the ETH Zurich study, therefore reducing CO2 emissions. In the UK, private-use electric scooters are currently banned on public roads without a licence and insurance. The UK Government is currently supporting shared e-scooter trials across the country, with plans to update legislation on private-use scooters at some point in 2022. 

Cycling UK, the leading cycling advocacy charity, said the true impacts of micromobility vary depending on location, and the existing habits of travellers. In the US for example, e-scooters will mainly replace car trips in automotive-dependent cities, whereas the opposite is true in European cities like Paris and Zurich, which already have relatively low car use, according the Cycling UK. 

Roger Geffen, policy director for the charity, said: “The UK Government needs to bear all this in mind when weighing up the wider pros and cons of e-scooters – including their impacts on safety, congestion and air quality, as well as the climate – and hence when deciding how to regulate them. To provide environmental and other benefits, e-scooters need to be fast enough to tempt people out of their cars. But if they are too fast and too powerful, they present a danger to pedestrians, and could erode the health benefits of cycling and walking. The Government needs to take great care in striking this balance, taking account of all the evidence.” 

While research into the true impact of micromobility is welcome, it appears that more work is needed to explore the real benefits and drawbacks of this emerging sector.

Fred Jones, vice president and regional general manager at Tier
“Our consumer research suggests 17.3% of e-scooter journeys directly replace car journeys. Our data also shows e-bikes are the preferred mode of transport for medium distances between 3-7km.

“Micromobility also offers people greater choice and flexibility, allowing them to use an e-scooter or e-bike for one leg of a longer journey. That’s why we agree that micromobility should be properly integrated with public transport options. In the next decade, micromobility can and must play a crucial role in the decarbonisation of transport, as we encourage more people to move away from cars, leave behind congestion and pollution and embrace electric vehicles as a key part of the wider transport mix.” 

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