Electric kick scooters could play an important role in covering the “first and last mile” in mobility services and so connect travellers to bus or train stations. For passengers without luggage, who are able to drive them, they can conveniently cover a few miles – and I have to admit: they are fun riding. But where do they add value in the mix of mobility options? Is there a niche between riding a bike and walking? Let’s have a look at two common use cases.
#1 Privately Owned Kick Scooters
In case the next mass transit system is available within the range of ~5 km / 3 miles, an electric kick scooter could get travellers from and to their homes and offices – assuming no more luggage than a light backpack and health and weather allows to ride a kick scooter. In case the scooter should not be left at the bus or train station and should also not clog these buses, subways or commuter trains, foldable versions would be of a huge advantage. Depending on the local regulations, they could even be taken on a bus and charged in the office.
#2 eScooter Sharing
Venture capital companies have recently poured billions of dollars into eScooter sharing companies like Bird or Lime and hope for the next Big Thing. They expect that every scooter creates more revenue in its lifetime than its total cost of ownership. Similar to the bike sharing model these total costs mainly consist of:
- Fixed costs for the hardware, i.e. production, shipping, discarding
- Variable costs for re-allocation, maintenance, battery charging, payment and customer care
Like with any other shared electric vehicle, charging adds additional complexity and costs – compared to non-electric bike sharing. These variables may vary depending on local circumstances such as license fees, vandalism or labour costs but the math remains the same everywhere.
A high cost factor is the distribution and service of the scooters. This is why most bike and scooter sharing companies focus on high density areas in inner cities. For city transport planners this just means that inner-city end of a journey could eventually be covered with a shared scooter – but not the end in the outskirts of a city or even in rural areas, where a feeder option would be mostly needed.
The online magazine QUARTZ has recently taken a look at “Scooternomics” using public data from the Louisville in Kentucky, USA. The result is disillusioning: despite of the focus on lucrative inner cities, the unit economics are strongly negative. Even if the lifespan of the scooters could be multiplied and no license fees would have to be paid – the revenues would not even cover the variable costs. Not very promising as a business model.
eScooters and the Environment
Electric kick scooters don’t directly exhaust climate gas. So are they a better option for our climate? To have a positive impact on our climate, an eScooter simply needs to replace more CO2 emissions from car usage than it would cause in its own production and usage.
Given the average livespan of a shared eScooter of only 28 days as stated in the beforementioned article, it does not even require a scientific study to understand that this cannot work out. Even if the lifespan could be increased and only electric power from renewable energy sources would be used for charging and servicing the scooters would all be done using cargo bikes, it is very unlikely that they could have a positive impact. With privately used scooters this picture might change assuming a much higher lifespan.
It is also questionable if users of electric kick scooters would have otherwise taken a car with a combustion engine and so reduce their carbon footprint. It is still widely unknown to what degree eScooter rides replace car rides and not bicycle or public transport rides or even walking. We probably need to wait for the first serious studies to answer this question.
As with every new mode of transport people need to get used to it and learn about the associated risks. But with the little e-kick scooters many riders obviously rather see them as the toy kick scooters they know from childhood rather then a potential risk to them and even more to children and elderly pedestrians. YouTube has a long list of kick scooter accidents and headlines like “electric scooters are now disrupting wrists, elbows and heads” is what you can read in the news. So its learning curve seems to take a high toll and time will tell if we will reach an “acceptable” level of risk. Irresponsible driving is one risk, irresponsible parking tripping up pedestrians another.
Considering these scooter accident headlines I don’t even take a deeper look at related vehicles, such as monowheels or electric skateboards which require a lot more training to safely ride them. Segways are easier to ride but haven’t taken off yet – probably due to their high weight and costs. Nevertheless they seem to have found their niche for tourist sightseeing tours and security services – but not as a serious mobility option yet. Another aspect not to be underestimated: when people cycle the last mile, they exercise at least a bit and so usually support their health. On a motorized vehicle like an eScooter this exercise and its positive health effect is simply not there.
If I would have to bet, my bet would be that not one of the pure kick scooter sharing companies will survive 2020 – so no need to regulate it. This business model will extinct naturally except for some tourist hot spots. The unit economics just don’t allow a profitable business. From an environmental, climate protection or health point of view, it is even worse. So probably no city will be willing to subsidize this mode of transport.
Where I can see electric kick scooters adding value in future mobility is the use case #1: the privately owned folding scooters covering the first and last mile as a feeder to mass transit modes like buses, subways or trains. Their value add compared to bikes is simply that they take up less space in the mass transit vehicles – almost like a folding bike.