As It Happens

E-scooters are coming to Canada — but they're not as eco-friendly as you might think: study

The e-scooter companies that have taken over the sidewalks in American cities are starting to set up shop in Canada, but a new study says they're not as environmentally friendly as they appear. 

Study tracks emissions from manufacturing, transportation and maintenance of dockless scooters

A California-based company called Lime operates an electric scooter pilot program in Waterloo, Ont., is and now launching in Montreal. (Lime)
Listen6:06

Read Story Transcript

The e-scooter companies that have taken over the sidewalks of American cities are starting to set up shop in Canada, but a new study says they're not as environmentally friendly as they appear. 

"I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and like many North American cities, last year we woke up to find hundreds of these scooters in our city," lead author Jeremiah Johnson told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay. 

"The scooter companies were making claims that their rides were carbon-free and Earth-friendly. So we decided to investigate."

The University of North Carolina study found that while scooters are much more sustainable than cars, they don't hold a candle to walking, biking or taking public transportation. That's because of the emissions produced during their manufacturing, transportation and maintenance.

But the findings, published last week in the journal Environmental Research Letters, are being contested by the companies behind the scooters. 

Taking hold in Canada 

Most e-scooter companies use a simple system: Download an app to locate and unlock a scooter nearby, ride it to your destination, and then it leave it wherever you get off.

They have become staples across many cities south of the border, where they are both hugely popular for their cost and convenience, and controversial because of the mess, congestion and traffic collisions that come with them.

A woman rides a Bird shared dockless electric scooter along Venice Beach in L.A. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Lime, an international e-scooter company, was granted a permit this week to operate in Montreal, and officially launched in Calgary in July. Its pilot in Waterloo, Ont., is set to wrap up in the fall.

A company called Bird Canada is also operating in Calgary, and has its eyes on Edmonton and Toronto.

In emailed statements to As It Happens, Bird touted its "unwavering focus on sustainability and the role we can play in effectively combating climate change," while Lime says it's "making rapid advances in both technology and operations that are helping us even further advance the sustainability benefits of our programs."

Better than cars, worse than everything else

After performing a life-cycle analysis of electric scooters, Johnson and his team determined the average greenhouse gas emissions per scooter mile traveled is just over 200 grams of CO2.

That's half the amount associated with a car, but 20 times that of a personal bicycle. 

The problem, Johnson said, is that most people aren't using the scooters to replace car rides. 

His team conducted a survey of scooter users in Raleigh and found 49 per cent would have biked or walked if they didn't have access to a scooter; 34 per cent would have used a car or ride-hailing service; 11 per cent would have taken a bus and seven per cent wouldn't have bothered at all. 

Shared electric scooters lie on a sidewalk in Los Angeles. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Scooters also aren't as low-carbon as public transport at capacity, Johnson said. 

"A bus that can hold dozens of people going that same mile would require dozens of scooters to commute the same distance," he said. 

The 'hidden' environmental impacts of scooters

That's because of what Johnson calls the "hidden environmental impacts" associated with scooters. 

They are made from aluminum, steel and lithium-ion batteries, all of which take emissions to produce. Manufacturing is responsible for roughly half the scooters' carbon footprint, the study found, a high rates of theft and vandalism mean the scooters must frequently be replaced. 

"A big reason for that is that these scooters have a relatively short lifetime. So if you think about the per-mile impacts, those materials and the manufacturing burdens carry a lot more weight," Johnson said. 

"If you could extend the life of these scooters, if you had more rugged scooters or better anti-vandalism policies stretching the life, then those materials would serve more purposes, cover more miles with the scooter riders and then the per-mile impact would drop."

A man rides a Lime electric scooter on in the southwestern French city of Bordeaux. (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

But the biggest cost, he said, is moving the scooters around. 

Every day, people have to drive around, pick up dead scooters, bring them to charging stations, and then distribute them around the city.

"There aren't the burdens of redistributing your personal bike," he said. "You drive your bike and you bring it home."

Bird says it's experimenting with using electric golf carts and cargo bicycles to pick up discarded scooters instead of cars or vans.

Companies push back against findings 

Bird Canada and Lime have both challenged the study's findings. 

"We welcome research into the environmental benefits of new mobility options and this study highlights many areas we've identified and on which we're already working," Lime spokesperson Taylor Bennett said in a statement. 

"That said, this study is also largely based on assumptions and incomplete data that produces high variability in the results."

For example, the researchers did not have access to company data and had to make certain assumptions about the manufacturing and collection processes. 

What's more, the study used a consumer model Xiaomi M365 scooter for its analysis rather than the in-house products deployed by shared e-scooter companies. 

Lime says it's taking steps to reduce its environmental impact, including powering scooters with 100-per-cent renewable energy, offsetting emissions from its fleet, and "establishing a robust repair and reuse program to extend the life cycle of our products."

Melinda Hanson, Bird's head of sustainability, says the fact that so many people are choosing scooters over cars and ride-hailing apps is a major victory in the fight against climate change. 

"Since our founding less than two years ago, we have seen people around the world choose e-scooters instead of gas-guzzling cars," she said. 

"In addition, we've committed to tracking the carbon footprint of our service as a whole, and are taking measurable steps to offset our operations' impact — even as a brand-new company."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jeremiah Johnson produced by Richard Raycraft. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.