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Shared e-bikes and e-scooters ‘do climate more harm than good’

Man rides an e-bike in the Swiss mountains
Privately owned e-bikes are used to replace cars more often than for sharing schemes. Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

Shared e-scooters and e-bikes can have a negative effect on the climate, a Swiss study has found. This is because such services generally replace trips with normal bicycles, rather than cars.

Many big cities, including Zurich, have schemes to rent and share e-bikes and e-scooters to relieve urban traffic and help reduce CO2 emissions. But until now it has not been clear how much these micro-mobility solutions impact the climate.

“Operating e-​scooters and e-​bikes seems climate-​friendly at first glance because they do not use internal combustion engines. But in terms of their carbon footprint, the means of transport they typically replace is ultimately what matters,” explained Daniel Reck from the Institute for Transport Planning and SystemsExternal link (IVT) at Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) in a statement on MondayExternal link.

Not so green

Researchers showed that shared e-bikes and e-scooters in the city of Zurich mainly replaced modes of transport that were already more environmentally friendly, like trams, bikes and walking. They do not normally replace car trips, which had been the assumption of some previous studies.

“In the way they are currently used, shared e-​scooters and e-​bikes do the climate more harm than good,” said Reck.

But the study found a different picture for private e-​scooters and e-​bikes, which more often replaced trips by car. They thus produced fewer CO2 emissions than the means of transport they replaced – and so were more beneficial to the climate.

The results of the study, published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and EnvironmentExternal link were highlighted in the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.

65,000 trips analysed

To get to its conclusions, the team collected position data, bookings and survey data for 540 travellers in the city of Zurich over three months. They were then able to reconstruct more than 65,000 trips using eight means of transport. Contextual information, like weather and mobility options available, were also added to the study.

This allowed Reck and his colleagues to develop the first model of its kind to show how people choose between means of transport, including shared and private options and public transport.

The team hopes that the results – that challenge the assumption that shared mobility protects the environment – are useful for city transport planners. And they say that Zurich is unlikely to be an exception as the findings could be applicable to most European cities with good public transport infrastructure.

Lessons for planners

“Authorities that want to reduce transport-​related CO2 emissions could integrate shared micro-mobility with public transport more effectively and support commuting by private micro-mobility,” suggested Reck.

Transport planners could also work with providers to find ways of maximising the potential of sharing services to reduce CO2 emissions. For example, shared e-scooters and e-bikes could extend the catchment area of public transport.

“Whether this potential can be realised depends on how we integrate and use micro-mobility in the future,” said Reck.

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