In 2018, transportation emissions accounted for over 24% of global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion1 and are expected to grow faster than any other sector. Cities are already playing a key role in reducing transportation emissions by taking greater steps than ever before2: instituting congestion pricing3, shifting transit and municipal fleets to all-electric vehicles4, restricting the use of diesel5 and other high-polluting vehicles6 in central city cores, requiring all-electric taxi fleets7, prioritizing walking and cycling and converting more rights-of-way to dedicated active transportation facilities8 among other efforts.
New mobility services, vehicle types and powertrain technologies are frequently introduced as promising solutions to reduce energy consumption, decrease harmful emissions and shift more people to using sustainable modes. This opportunity to divert trips away from higher-polluting automobiles, especially for short distance trips, is at the heart of why micromobility has such strong potential. With any new mobility service or vehicle, however, it is critical to evaluate and learn exactly what its environmental impacts are, how it compares to other travel modes and vehicles and how many trips are being added or replaced to truly gauge the overall environmental impact.
What we’ve already learned since micromobility’s introduction is that a different approach is necessary to assess the sustainability of micromobility vehicles accurately. Electric micromobility vehicles, as opposed to most other existing vehicles with internal combustion engines (cars, trucks and buses), are inherently different because the bulk of their negative environmental impact is in their manufacture, transport and during service-based operations9. It is not in the energy consumption from the daily charging and use of the vehicle itself.
As smaller, lightweight electric vehicles shift environmental impacts further upstream, we will need a new approach to capture the entire life cycle of the vehicle. Defining this life cycle will require a deeper dive and better understanding of something cities largely have not had to be concerned with: how vehicles are manufactured, how long vehicles last and the role of modular parts and batteries, how operators manage and maintain their vehicles and how operators charge and distribute their fleets as well as end of life and waste management challenges. There are valid questions about the ability and appropriateness of cities to regulate some components of that life cycle, but we must continue to learn more about these upstream impacts for the future. Today though, cities do have a few policy levers—Operations and Lifespan—that, when activated, can help reduce local environmental impacts. Operations refers to understanding and reducing the impacts associated with collecting, redistributing and recharging vehicles. Lifespan focuses on the local environmental footprint throughout the vehicle lifespan and takes into account how long on average vehicles are in service.
Today, there is no standardized vehicle life cycle assessment in existence, though a number of micromobility operators and NGOs are working on creating assessments. Along with a commitment from many service providers to increase transparency, newly available vehicle life cycle data has created a window of opportunity for total environmental impact of a vehicle or service to enter the public purview, allowing a fundamentally different perspective from which to evaluate new and future services and, hopefully, reevaluate existing vehicles and services.
If we believe that these vehicle form factors and services can play a significant role in meeting critical climate targets, then we must proceed carefully to avoid unfairly stifling these services, especially in comparison to more polluting incumbent modes such as cars and trucks, simply because we have access to more data and information on the newcomers.
International Energy Agency, Tracking Transport – Analysis, November 2019Somini Sengupta and Nadja Popovich, “Cities Worldwide Are Reimagining Their Relationship With Cars” The New York Times, November 2019Erin Durkin and Lauren Aratani, “New York Becomes First City in Us To Approve Congestion Pricing” The Guardian, April 2019Amy Morsch Bailey, “Greening City Fleets”, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, March 2020 Alana Petroff, “Diesel ban in Hamburg: German city bars older cars and trucks from key roads”, CNN Money, March 2020“City of Amsterdam to ban polluting cars from 2030”, Reuters, May 2019“Emissions standards for taxis”, Transport for London, March 2020Adele Peters, “What happened when Oslo decided to make its downtown basically car-free?”, Fast Company, January 2019Workshop Summary: Life-cycle assessment of urban transport options, International Transport Forum, October 2019, Full Life-Cycle Assessment Report due May 2020
Micromobility & Your City is a digital tool for cities to evaluate micromobility services against policy goals that foster safe, sustainable and equitable communities for all.
Subscribe to receive tips for how to use mobility data to achieve policy outcomes in your city.