Electric scooters – good or bad for the environment?

Electric scooters – good or bad for the environment?

13/09/2019

In a week that has seen Prince Harry and Meghan Markle lambasted for their use of 4 private jet flights in as many weeks, contributing an estimated 37.6 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, one thing is clear – the environment is very high up on society’s agenda at present – rightly so!

As Elton John has pointed out to the world, in his defence of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, at least the flights to and from Nice were carbon offset through payments to fund environmental initiatives. These initiatives come in many forms, ranging from sequestration through the planting of trees to prevention via the provision of more efficient stoves in developing nations.

My background is one of accounting and finance, a world where the logic of £1 today is worth more to you than a £1 in a year is ingrained from the birth of your career. As this is true in finance, it is also true with carbon offsetting. Adding an extra 37.6 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere today is not necessarily the same as paying for 37.6 tonnes of CO2 to be offset in the future. This is due to what I call the “carbon offset lag” associated with many environmental projects.

Looking at my two earlier examples of initiatives, tree planting can take upwards of 10 years to lock in the carbon being offset. Equally, funding the move to more efficient stove does not reduce CO2 emissions overnight, it happens over the lifetime of the stove and there are many more examples of where this offset lag rings true.

This is not to say, however, that any initiative where this lag presents itself is a bad one. I believe that, like the solutions to most problems, carbon offsetting should and needs to consist of a number of measures with many of these taking years to come to full fruition. The reason for this is at least two-fold in my mind; firstly a lot of initiatives have the potential to offset far more carbon over their lifetimes than is being paid to be offset. Secondly, they have other positive externalities associated with them such as the restoration of wildlife habitats or the improvement in the quality of life of some of the worlds most disadvantaged.

It is therefore important that as well as simply choosing to offset, consumers and businesses understand how this offset is taking place and any lag involved. It is only through this can we, as consumers of carbon offsets, make educated decisions as to the level offset we seek (i.e. 1x, 2x, etc.) to mitigate any carbon offset lag. While choosing to carbon offset to any degree is a decision which will go down favourably, it is not the end of the story. Businesses must look at ways of being more efficient in their transportation whether that be through the optimisation of journeys or switching to cleaner fuels and/or vehicles.

This brings us nicely back around to the title subject, electric scooters. Much has been claimed about their green credentials and power to reduce CO2 emissions, particularly by the dockless operators such as Bird and Lime. I was recently forwarded a fantastic study on this dockless model, accessible at the bottom of this post, which in stark contrast, asserts that in 65% of their simulations dockless electric scooters were found to have higher life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than the conventional suite of transportation options displaced. The key reasons for this finding are cited as:

  • requirement for scooters to be collected on a nightly basis to be charged and re-distributed back into high usage zones using more polluting forms of transportation;
  • incredibly short lifespans of scooters which, from other sources, I know these have been cited as brief as 28 days – the same as that of the common housefly; and
  • in 55.7% of cases, if electric scooters were not available, riders would either not have made the journey, walked or cycled.

The study did concede however that if electric scooters were being used as a substitute for personal automobile transportation then a net reduction in environmental impact was achieved in nearly all simulations.

What it is also important to realise is that all this environmental inefficiency comes at a financial cost as well, after all, carbon emissions come from activity and as any business will testify to, getting people to act on your behalf is rarely free. Dockless scooters cost anywhere between $10 and $16 per hour or £8-£13 at current exchange rates and with any significant usage this quickly adds up.

Do we therefore have our answer? I don’t think so. I think there is another, better, way to utilise electric scooters.

The dockless model undoubtedly offers users a tremendous amount of convenience, both in terms of location and quantity of usage, but at a price. The perhaps unobvious question which we should be posing to ourselves is however; do we need this convenience?

If I relate to my own personal journeys there are a significant amount which start and end at the same location. For instance, my morning and evening commute consists of:

home -> office -> home

During the day I then may go to a number of meetings:

office -> meeting -> office

The presence of a central hub, being the office in the above example, means that the value I attach to having the convenience of access associated with a dockless model is actually quite low, certainly significantly less than the price charged by these operators. Because of this, you are able to remove the first reason cited in the study referred to as nightly collections and drastically improve the green credentials of electric scooters.

Looking at the other aspect of convenience, the quantity of usage, I know with a high degree of certainty that I will be making the above journeys on a very regular basis and therefore this convenience has minimal value to me.

These two realisations are what lead me to the creation of DASH and its pioneering scooters-as-a-service offering, designed to make scooters simple. For a target price of between £3-£4 per day, at least a 50% reduction in the hourly cost of our dockless compatriots, we aim to provide businesses with custom branded electric scooters and technology as below to deliver against our vision and goal of simplicity:

  • intuitive iOS/Android app, in keeping with your corporate branding, to “check out” scooters, which through a combination of pre-ride checks and regular instructional videos ensures that your employees/customers are using them safely and responsibly, managing your business risk;
  • central dashboard showing you both where your scooters are and who is on them, allowing for real-time optimisation of where your workforce needs to be. It will also detail usage statistics and importantly carbon emissions data; carbon emission offset program;
  • assist with ensuring your business has the appropriate insurance through our insurance partners; and
  • increased durability technology along with reactive/routine maintenance and servicing, providing you with peace of mind that all scooters are in safe working order.

Through the above, users will have a greater connection to the electric scooters than the dockless versions and as a consequence treat them with greater care and respect, much like the care taken over company-provided laptops. This will drastically reduce the impact of the second issue found with the environmental study – short lifespans.

Lastly given the usage of scooters as a business tool, the cross-section of journeys will be fundamentally different to that of the dockless model with far few journeys being substituted for more environmentally friendly alternatives due to the need to arrive at your destination quickly and without the perspiration associated with cycling or a brisk walk.

Through the DASH model, I believe that electric scooters can be very much on the net positive side of the environmental debate and also realise significant cost savings for businesses and their employees.

If this sounds of interest to you and would like to learn more or register your interest, please email me at [email protected] and I would be delighted to talk to you. Now, all we need is for the UK highways Act to catch up to 2019 from 1835 – perhaps an apt topic for my next update.