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Dockless scooters or scooter-sharing system is a type of shared transportation service. This system enables the public to use electric motorized scooters for short-term rentals. These electric scooters are referred to as ‘dockless’ as they do not have any owners, a fixed home, or a location to go to. Dockless scooters are picked up and dropped off from different locations in a particular service area.
The dockless scooter system aims to provide people with a convenient and fast mode of transportation in cities and urban areas. As electric scooters and the sharing system continue to gain popularity, municipal governments have enforced certain rules on dockless scooters to increase pedestrian and rider safety. This new and popular transport system is one of the most affordable and attractive micro-mobility options.
Now the main question here is: Are dockless scooters really a sustainable commute?
As dockless scooters start appearing on most cities and towns’ streets, they will likely completely change the urban person’s mobility patterns. When the scooter-sharing system was launched worldwide in 2018, the promise of shared micro-mobility was to offer urban areas an attractive and better alternative transportation option. It aimed to prevent the public from driving their private vehicles and reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion.
This system aimed to provide a solution to the first mile/last mile challenge- which describes the start or the end of a single trip made mainly by public transport. Now, people can rent a bike or a scooter to travel from home to a transit stop, which otherwise would be too long to travel by foot.
After three years since the program was launched, researchers can now better understand the usage patterns of the scooters and if they are viewed as a safe, convenient, and reliable transport by their users. According to a 2019 pilot conducted by San Francisco’s city transportation agency, over a third of micro-mobility trips were made to or from a transit station. According to another study conducted by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which surveyed 75,000 users, around 30 per cent said they frequently used scooters to commute.
Even though dockless scooters are mainly used for transportation purposes, they have surprisingly served as a leisure activity for several people- according to the above study, 28 per cent of the respondents said they mostly use the scooter for recreation and fun. In the first few years of the dockless scooter’s operation, it has proven safe and reliable transportation for most people.
Most micro-mobility companies often present their technologies as environmentally friendly. However, it takes some time to account for all the factors contributing to the technology’s carbon footprint.
A study was conducted by researchers from North Carolina State University. The life cycle assessment study reviewed all the emissions from producing, shipping, charging, collecting, and disposing of dockless scooters and quantified all the ecological impacts linked with global warming, eutrophication, acidification, and respiratory impacts. The impact of charging a dockless scooter is insignificant when comparing it with the carbon footprint of its material and production and the daily collection for charging- 50 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively.
Researchers analyzed the environmental impact of extracting, producing, and delivering the materials needed to make a scooter. The high cost of production of the scooters can only be offset by a longer lifetime. But, a dockless scooter’s operating life is only two years.
Another problem with the dockless scooter is the ‘fleet operation’. The scooter-sharing system enables users to hop off and leave the vehicle anywhere, as it is convenient for travellers on the run. However, it poses a small problem from an energy consumption perspective.
For every dockless scooter that is abandoned, a collector driver is looking for it. These collectors generally and often use their private vehicles to look for them as they get compensated for bringing them home, charging them, and redeploying them the next day. This creates a problem due to a lack of optimized logistics for the scooter pick-up. It leads to frequent back-and-forth driving- adding to emissions, pollution, and traffic.
According to the above study, dockless scooters generate more emissions per passenger mile than an electric moped, electric bicycle, diesel bus with high ridership, or bicycle.
This brings us back to the question: Are dockless scooters really a sustainable commute? Dockless scooters may be more sustainable than cars, bikes, or other vehicles. However, it does have its environmental impacts.
To increase micro-mobility’s sustainability, companies need to develop more upgraded models of scooters, making them stronger and more reparable. They should also implement resale and refurbishment programs- giving the vehicles a second or third life. The use of fuel-efficient collector vehicles must increase, and companies must implement optimized route plans to reduce the environmental impact.