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As Cambridge prepares for 12-month trial with Voi, how ‘green’ are e-scooters?

A trial of e-scooters is coming to Cambridge - but are they really as environmentally-friendly as they purport to be?

One of the Combined Authority’s stated aims in running the trial, in line with its wider transport strategy, is to help people access healthier, greener forms of transport.

A Voi e-scooter being used in Cambridge. Picture: Matthew Power Photography
A Voi e-scooter being used in Cambridge. Picture: Matthew Power Photography

It has commissioned Voi, the European micro-mobility company, to bring a fleet of e-scooters for hire in the city from September, with e-bikes following shortly after, as the Cambridge Independent has reported.

The hope is that people will ditch the car for short journeys and hop on one of Voi’s vehicles instead.

In terms of air pollution, there’s no argument about the environmental benefit. E-scooters, like e-bikes, produce no emissions, and therefore could play a role in reducing pollution in Cambridge if people opt for them instead of using cars.

Carbon emissions, however, are more complicated, as a proper assessment needs to take into account the full life cycle of an e-scooter, including the materials used in making one, the manufacturing process, collection, distribution, charging and disposal.

A North Carolina University study in 2019, titled ‘Are e-scooters polluters? The environmental impacts of shared dockless electric scooters’, published in IOPScience, examined these impacts and compared them to the alternative modes of transport that riders would have used, if any.

They compared favourably to using a car, but the study - based on US data - concluded: “Dockless e-scooters consistently result in higher life cycle global warming impacts relative to the use of a bus with high ridership, an electric bicycle, or a bicycle per passenger-mile traveled.”

But there are policy decisions that local authorities and e-scooter operators could take to reduce the environmental impact, the authors noted.

They said: “We found that the global warming impacts associated with the use of shared e-scooters are dominated by materials, manufacturing and automotive use for e-scooter collection for charging. Increasing scooter lifetimes, reducing collection and distribution distance, using more efficient vehicles and less frequent charging strategies can reduce adverse environmental impacts significantly.”

Allowing e-scooters to remain in public areas overnight and enacting anti-vandalism policies were among the suggestions, which noted: “This study clearly demonstrates that there is the potential for e-scooters to increase life cycle emissions relative to the transportation modes that they displace.”

But it warned: “Claims of environmental benefits from their use should be met with skepticism unless longer product lifetimes, reduced materials burdens, and reduced e-scooter collection and distribution impacts are achieved.”

Voi, for its part, says it has gone a long way towards that already.

“We believe that electric scooters are one mode of transport that will help us to reduce emissions from transport and particularly give people a choice not to make a short car journey,” the company told the Cambridge Independent.

“A recent Life Cycle Assessment, published by Ernst & Young, found our Voiager 3X model to be our most sustainable model yet.

“In contrast to the first LCA (life cycle assessment) report published by North Carolina University in May 2019, in which emissions of electric scooters in the US topped out at 126g CO2 equivalent emissions per person per kilometre, EY’s report shows this number is significantly lower in Europe.

Combined Authority mayor James Palmer tries out an e-scooter
Combined Authority mayor James Palmer tries out an e-scooter

“Our Voiager 3 e-scooter, for example, was found to generate 34.7 CO2 equivalent emissions per person per kilometer – a 72 per cent drop in comparison to figures from the US study. This puts our emissions per passenger kilometer well below cars, and on par with many public transport options.

“Where we use swappable batteries, we can significantly reduce the emissions involved in charging and maintaining scooters and keep the scooter on the street for longer, so that it can be used more times a day.

“We’re making improvements all the time to our technology and as we begin our third year we expect the life cycle impact of e-scooters to decrease further due to huge improvements in the fleet and in our operations.

“Our latest swappable models now last at least 24 months. We have also recently announced that we have a carbon neutral service in all Voi cities through a partnership with EcoAct, French climate neutrality expert and contributor of Paris’ Climate Plan.”

Voi’s e-scooters and e-bikes will cost £1 to unlock via an app then 20p a minute, with subscriptions of £10 a day or £40 a month will be available.

Subsidised passes of £10 per month will be offered to low income groups.

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