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Driving Change

In a post-COVID world, what’s the future of shared micromobility?

The industry aims to boost its sustainability commitment by focusing on circularity and proving the value of shared e-scooters and e-bikes to cities.

A man riding an e-bike (foreground) and a woman riding an e-scooter

Lime’s Gen4 e-bike and e-scooter. Photo courtesy of Lime.

Here is something not so shocking — I love shared micromobility. Something about easily finding an electric scooter or bike, quickly scanning with your phone to unlock it and riding off to then leave it somewhere at the end of your trip makes for an enjoyable and efficient experience. 

When the dockless shared e-scooter industry really took off in 2017, it disrupted the status quo in mobility, giving Department of Transportation leaders and elected officials a new challenge to manage free-roaming undocked e-scooters across their cities. It also gave citizens a new option to move around their city, which, depending on the location, was really limited only to an internal combustion engine vehicle or public transit. 

However, the world is a different place now. Bird, one of the first shared micromobility companies to kick off this dockless e-scooter model, now faces turmoil, including massive financial troubles and layoffs and a warning from the New York Stock Exchange that its stock price is too low. But even amid such news, in a post-COVID world and with articles headlined "EV ‘micromobility' would like your respect," I firmly believe shared micromobility is here to stay. So what does the future of this industry look like, and what is the next frontier it must surpass? 

In speaking with Andrew Savage, vice president and head of sustainability at Lime, a leading shared e-scooter and e-bike company invested in by Uber, I got a glimpse into where the company and the industry more broadly are headed. Two areas stood out to me: circularity and net lifecycle emissions; and continuing to prove value to cities in the race to net zero. 

Circularity and net lifecycle emissions

Late last month, Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI), on behalf of Lime, released a lifecycle assessment study detailing the impact that shared e-scooters and e-bikes, namely Lime’s, have on reducing carbon emissions in cities. "What I think the report demonstrates is the long-term commitment that we have made to reducing lifecycle emissions in our products," Savage said. "We know that early on in the industry, and early on at Lime, we were not operating in a good place in terms of sustainability, either financially or environmentally, and we know we needed to change that." 

Savage shared that this commitment to sustainability early on drove the company to where it is today, and that the study shows their commitment has been paying off. The findings from the report show that the latest generation of Lime vehicles can reduce net carbon emissions, with the most reductions happening when a shared micromobility trip replaces a ride-sharing or internal combustion engine vehicle trip. The trend is evident as Lyft shows an average 36 percent car replacement rate for its bike-share program and Uber-backed Lime shows 27 percent for its e-scooters. 

[Want to learn more about how to accelerate your company's journey to a climate-positive future? Check out VERGE Net Zero, a free online event, Dec. 6-7, online.]

However, a potential issue that the study briefly addresses is shared micromobility trips replacing walking, taking public transit or using a personal e-bike. When I asked Savage about this point, he shared that when using micromobility or having micromobility in a community, there are still net carbon savings. The study suggests that even in cases where micromobility was used when it otherwise wouldn’t have been, the "increase in emissions tends to be smaller than the reduced emission of the prior mode shift." Even in that case, you do not need much data to understand that walking does not really produce any emissions, short of the emissions generated from wearing clothes and shoes, and using a shared e-scooter has some lifecycle emissions. 

Companies such as Lime are already working to push individuals toward a more sustainable use of micromobility, one that is integrated with transit and drives people to shared micromobility instead of ridehailing. "There are things we already do that significantly enhance that [push individuals toward less carbon-emitting options], where people pull up the Uber app and pick taking a Lime vehicle over an Uber ride-hailing trip," Savage said. "That is a huge benefit to the overall carbon impact of our service and … we know a significant number of our riders regularly are taking trips to and from public transportation and a third of the mobility-as-a-service integrations around the world are where we integrate within the existing transit or transport systems."

One way Lime has matured as a company and achieved some benefits from the Fraunhofer ISI study is its focus on offering an all-around better product in its service. "A big bet that we took over the long term was to invest in an engineering team and invest in our design and production," Savage said. "The lifecycle results demonstrate that lifespan improvements and parts repair and reuse are central … [in addition to] electrifying the operations fleet and the introduction of swappable batteries so that the fully charged batteries can be swapped on-site, essentially reducing a trip each time and keeping the vehicle in service for longer." 

Savage expressed excitement when asked about whether a fully net-zero product from Lime is a part of the near future. "Yes, it’s definitely a part of the future, and it 100 percent aligns with our goal of building a future of transportation that’s 100 percent carbon-free, and a part of that is going to necessitate building a carbon-free vehicle," Savage said. "Micromobility has the greatest potential to build a carbon-free service the fastest because of the relative efficiency of moving a person on an e-scooter or e-bike versus a car, which often weighs 2 to 4 tons to move the same person." However, Savage did not share any timeline regarding when we can expect a net-zero Lime scooter on the streets. 

Continuing to prove value to cities in a post-COVID world

"We saw during COVID, cities rethinking their use of space," Savage said. "…We see the future being incredibly bright [for micromobility]; you are seeing cities, particularly in Europe, that are actually looking at city centers and full decarbonization by not allowing combustion engine vehicles to enter certain areas of the city, and those types of policy developments will only continue to validate the service we’re able to provide."

No question — COVID brought about a transformation of the city landscape, and no place was that more evident than in New York City, where streets were in part given back to the people instead of being only owned by cars. The advent of restaurants extending their operations beyond the curb, adding more protected bike lanes and expanding sidewalks for pedestrian travel all continue to show a shift in understanding from city leaders that operating a car-dominated model can no longer be the norm. 

In such an environment, I agree with Savage — micromobility will continue to thrive as cities push further on public transit, walking and giving individuals greater access to mobility options. "Whether it’s cities like London, Paris, Chicago or Los Angeles that want to have a path towards decarbonization and are going to think hard about how micromobility can contribute to that effort, likewise, we’re going to think hard about how we can continue to achieve our decarbonization mission so the benefits we’re providing to cities only continue to increase."

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