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Self-service electric scooters, gentle mobility for the planet?

Since 2018, self-service electric scooters have taken over the streets of several cities in France and fuel constant debate. Hailed by some as a new “soft mobility”, they are also regularly criticized as a “bad solution”, ultimately “not very ecological”. As Paris prepares to vote for their retention or not in the capital, France 24 deciphers their ecological footprint.

Will self-service electric scooters soon disappear from the streets of the capital? After five years of debate, relaunched with each accident, Parisians will be able to vote on whether or not to ban these vehicles during a citizen consultation organized on Sunday April 2. Deployed since 2018, they continue to divide public opinion, sometimes presented as new “practical” and “green” mobility, sometimes as “ecological aberrations”.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, spoke out in January, in the columns of Le Parisien, in favor of their ban, denouncing machines “which are not green”. An argument immediately refuted by the Minister Delegate for Transport, Clément Beaune: it is above all a question of “a means of ecological mobility”, he assured France 2 a few days later. “As we know, many have given up the polluting scooter, or even the car, to take a scooter.” On the eve of the citizen consultation, France 24 deciphers the ecological impact of this “soft mobility”.

Less and less polluting scooters

“The main problem today is their manufacture, which generates the majority of their greenhouse gas emissions,” notes Anne de Bortoli, researcher in carbon neutrality and sustainability of transport and infrastructure at Polytechnique Montreal. In question, the lithium batteries which allow them to roll, but above all, the aluminum frames “whose production is very energy-intensive”, she continues.

>> Read also: In Europe, the race for lithium, a major issue in the energy transition

But in addition to this polluting production, the deployment and operation of electric scooters are regularly pointed out by the refractory. Among the critics: machines with a “too short” lifespan and companies prioritizing “efficiency and speed” rather than ecology. “It was true in 2018, when the first self-service scooters arrived in the capital,” admits the specialist. “The operation was chaotic. Thirteen operators shared 40,000 machines in the streets of Paris and tried at all costs to find a place in a flourishing market. “

“But since then things have changed a lot,” she says. “Already, the first generation of scooters which were not at all designed for shared use – they were not strong enough and had a very short lifespan – have been replaced. Today they are much more robust and resilient.”

At the same time, the market was organised. Paris, like several cities in France, has restricted the number of vehicles available and reduced the number of operators authorized to deploy them. And faced with this lesser competition, “management has become more and more ecological”, welcomes Anne de Bortoli.

“In 2018, scooters were collected to be recharged by ‘juicers’, subcontractors paid by the number of vehicles recovered, which drove diesel vans to remote charging sites. The environmental impact was enormous,” she recalls. “Gradually, operators replaced these vans with electric vehicles and favored scooters with removable batteries, which are easier to transport.”

A higher impact than the metro but lower than the car

“Thus, while in 2018, the operation of the scooter fleet represented at least 50% of their CO2 emissions, today this proportion drops to 10%”, greets Anne de Bortoli. And these efforts are felt in the ecological impact. According to the specialist’s measurements, the carbon footprint of self-service scooters was 109 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilometer traveled in 2019. It has since halved to 60 grams.

“Today, we therefore consider that self-service scooters have an intermediate ecological footprint”, continues Anne de Bartoli. A shared scooter will have a higher environmental impact than other so-called “soft” modes of transport – it pollutes about five times more than a bicycle or the metro over an equivalent distance – but remains 3 to 4 times less polluting than a car trip.

The carbon footprint of Parisian modes of transport
The carbon footprint of Parisian modes of transport © Graphic studio, France Media World

“The worst modes of transport obviously remain diesel buses, cars and taxis. And the most ecological of all, it will always be walking”, says the specialist with a smile.

Electric scooters, for what uses?

“But to really determine whether a mode of transport is beneficial for the planet or not, we must also look at what it replaces”, insists Anne de Bortoli. “Obviously, its use will be all the more virtuous if it is done to the detriment of a more polluting vehicle.”

And there, the results of self-service scooters seem to be mixed. According to the results from a survey conducted in Paris in 2020, only 7% of shared scooter rides replaced trips that would otherwise have been made by car or taxi. With distances traveled rarely exceeding 2 km, scooters rather replace walking or the metro.

“But electric scooters, handy and easily foldable, are also perfect tools to encourage people to use their car less,” adds Grégoire Hénin, vice-president of the Federation of Micro-Mobility Professionals. “And more and more people are using them to join public transport or carpool,” he says.

“Not to mention that another argument pleads in favor of these shared vehicles: in addition to CO2 emissions, other environmental emergencies must also be taken into account, such as pollution or the extinction of biodiversity”, continues Anne de Bortoli. However, by emitting no fine particles during use, the scooter helps to fight against air pollution.

The personal electric scooter, a greener option

Finally, for those who appreciate this mode of travel, the most ecological option is to invest in their own electric scooter. “You always take better care of your things… its lifespan is often longer, more offsetting its environmental cost,” explains the specialist. According to his calculations, a personal electric scooter pollutes five times less than its shared equivalent.

“But this is also where self-service scooters can be of interest. They can serve as an intermediary. The user discovers what it is, can test the machine, start changing their habits and go realize that it suits him”, notes Grégoire Hénin. And indeed, since 2018 and their arrival on the streets, the market has exploded. “700 000 scooters were sold in France in 2022. And 35 million people use one every day,” he explains.

But there remains a big challenge: what to do with electric scooters at the end of their life and in particular lithium batteries? If the recycling sector is developing for aluminum frames, allowing in particular the establishment of a circular economy, that for lithium remains in its infancy. In 2022, only 12% of batteries were recycled.


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