Free-floating Electric Scooters Are Everywhere, But Are They Sustainable?

By Annie Butkiewicz, Content and Communications Officer, Autonomy

In terms of urban mobility, the electric shared (kick) scooter is an extraordinary tool. With just a frame and an electric motor, it’s so simple to produce that it has the potential to revolutionize the way we move in cities. But since they took off last year, there have been a slew of negative stories about electric scooters.

Of all the problems that have arisen, the most pressing ones facing shared electric scooter companies are durability, safety, and vandalism. As shared electric scooter businesses become increasingly expensive to operate due to the costs of these problems, investors are starting to lose interest, according to reports in The Wall Street Journal and The Information. Vandalism and depreciation costs are also taking their toll as scooter companies struggle to get their newer, more rugged models on the street.

So let’s take a look at the root of these problems and potential fixes. To begin with durability, it’s not consoling to learn the average lifespan of electric scooters. While the numbers vary slightly, an article published in the beginning of March by Quartz examines open data from the city of Louisville, Kentucky. The data looks at the first cohort of Bird scooters introduced to Louisville in August, and determines the average lifespan to be just shy of a month, 28.8 days. The findings also showed that only seven of the 129 scooters lasted more than 60 days.

This astonishingly short lifespan has a lot to do with the design of the scooters. Currently, most operators use scooters designed for domestic use. In June of this year at a Santa Monica city council meeting, Bird revealed that their average scooter does 5-6 trips per day, and the average length of a Bird trip is 1.6 miles. When you compare this with how often an individual rides a privately owned scooter, there’s a lot more stress being put on the machine.

At the most recent urban mobility breakfast with Autonomy, Matthieu Faure, the head of Marketing and Communications at Dott, explained in an interview that Dott is trying to buy scooters specifically designed for the needs of scooter sharing. Micro Mobility France CEO, Grégoire Henin, whose distribution company works closely with free floating companies, agrees that operators want to increase the lifespan of the vehicles.

“Sharing businesses need to make scooters more robust,” Henin said in a phone interview. “People take less care of the product and those who use it all have different weights and sizes and ways of using it.” Apart from changing the design, one potential solution to the durability problem is to dock the scooters, like they do at French shared electric scooter company, WeTrott. Safely docked and charged scooters have a longer lifetime, said WeTrott CEO, Gregory Hanquet. It effectively reduces exposure to the elements and ensures a fully charged battery (which, in turn, lengthens the life of the battery). But it limits distribution. And it doesn’t solve the problem of vandalism and safety.

Which brings us right to our next point. It’s true that certain electric scooter practices on the street have been frighteningly reckless — two people riding on one scooter, without helmets, etc. Unfortunately, since 2017, there have been many victims of fatal electric scooter accidents — an Irish exchange student riding a Lime scooter in Texas, a 90-year-old pedestrian in Spain. A study by Consumer Reports estimates that there have been at least 1,545 scooter-related accidents in the U.S. since 2017.

There needs to be a standard of use in the micro mobility industry, and the number of accidents shows a need for tutorials and scooter education in the shared electric scooter realm, Henin said. Individuals have learned how to safely use their scooters, so can people using shared scooters. “Electric scooters have been getting a lot of flack lately,” Henin said. “Comparatively, the number of accidents is relatively small for the number of total rides, literally millions of rentals. Whereas, individuals who own e-scooters know to wear a helmet and protective gear, and know how to use the scooter safely.”  

The final major problem facing shared electric scooter companies currently is vandalism. In addition to the staggeringly short lifespans of electric scooters in Louisville, Quartz also found that of the 129 scooters introduced in August, five disappeared the same day they went into service. Alexandre Gauquelin, a consultant and blogger on sustainable and shared mobility, attended the Micro Mobility conference in California, where he noted that vandalism was one of the main cost concerns right now for free floating operators. “You can find tutorials online on how to hack some models of scooters,” Gauquelin said. “It’s not vandal-proof, and this is true for both the hardware and mechatronic parts. You can cut certain wires to hack the scooter.”  So it shouldn’t be surprising that volunteers with the Lake Merritt Institute in Oakland, California, often stumble across Lime and Bird scooters in the park, often dumped in the lake itself. The Guardian reported that the group found nearly 100 Lime and Bird Scooters dumped in the lake since September, and they found 60 in October alone.

It wouldn’t be surprising to find the scooters in trash cans and trees, as well. These are critical problems facing shared electric scooter companies, and in the long-term, these are not sustainable business practices. It would be wise for shared scooter companies to heed warning from the now mostly defunct free-floating bike share companies like Ofo, oBike, Mobike, and Gobee.bike that came before.

Want to read more about shared electric scooters? Check out these past UMDaily articles: 

The Final Word on Free-floating Electric Scooters (For Now)

Is E-scooter Start-up Bird Worth $2 Billion? Yes but Only if it Can Do Something Most Other B2C Mobility Companies Cannot