State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Big Impact of Electric Scooters

The Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development began its Fall 2020 Speaker Series by welcoming Cesar Cardona, an alumni of Columbia’s M.S. program in Sustainable Management and a specialist in micro-mobility as a form of sustainable transportation.

Micro-mobility is the practice of using lightweight vehicles, primarily electric bicycles or scooters, for short distance transportation. In the past three years, as the world has sought to make green forms of transportation more readily accessible, the micro-mobility market has exploded. Cardona was on the forefront of this trend towards sustainable progress. After graduating from Columbia in the summer of 2017, he joined Lime, the self-proclaimed global leader in micro-mobility, as one of its first 50 employees. Today, Lime rents out electric scooters and bikes to countless cities around the world, with the aim of reducing dependence on emission-producing vehicles for short distance traveling.  

boy riding an electric scooter
Photo: Brett Sayles on Pexels

Lime is one of the many companies that have recently become popular with the expansion of the micro-mobility market. As another example, with just a short walk outside the confines of Columbia’s campus, Citi Bikes, the most popular form of micro-mobility transportation around New York today, are easily seen.

According to Cardona, micro-mobility companies work symbiotically with other forms of sustainable transportation to improve the accessibility of the city in which they are located. Since each micro-mobility company operates with the same basic goal and premise, the essential structure of each is the same. Cardona lists the seven main components needed to operate a micro-mobility company: government, public relations, operations, recycling, finance, data, and engineering. 

The government component is the most important in determining the viability of the market in a particular city. This area involves evaluating a city’s attractiveness for the company’s purposes, estimating the earning potential of the market, and finally, forming the necessary relationships with city leaders.

The primary concern with regard to public relations is safety. In most micro-mobility companies, the user is required to download an app and read through safety instructions before having access to the vehicle. This requirement is an integral part of public relations in order to maintain a positive image among those who are potential consumers and also those who are potential investors.

Operations are the pure logistics of developing and maintaining a sustainable transportation company. In order to populate a new market, the scooters have to be shipped from China, where they are produced, to the city in question. Additionally, there has to be a local warehouse where scooters can be taken in order to be charged or repaired. 

In terms of global imaging, perhaps the most important components of a micro-mobility company are reliability of service and sustainability. Sustainability, especially in terms of recycling, is still an obstacle for all micro-mobility companies. The packaging and transportation of the electric scooters are a large source of cardboard and plastic waste, presenting a challenge that all micro-mobility companies are rising to face.

For finance, although the company serves the city in which it operates, it is funded by external investors. In order to receive financing in the intended city, the company needs data from previous markets with similar economies and infrastructure. In this way, the finance, data, and engineering departments intertwine. The use of the micro mobility app and the micro mobility GPS helps to record all of these necessary data points. Much like a Tesla, the scooters are designed to feed the gathered information back into the app, which revises its procedure accordingly. This process helps companies better design future model scooters and improve operations with a proactive design approach. 

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the micro-mobility sector, but perhaps not only in the way one would expect. On one hand, micro-mobility companies have had to initiate a lot of new protocols in order to adhere to the new safety standards dealing with minimizing the spread of the virus. Additionally, companies have had  to reduce some of their global market presence because of an inability to cover overhead costs due to reduced scooter usage. However, now when people are using scooters they are covering longer distances. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, scooters were being used to cover an average distance of 1 to 1.3 miles. Recently, people have been tripling or quadrupling that distance in order to avoid public transportation during inner city travel. Due to this change, operations and revenue models have had to be reconfigured.

Even for those who choose not to use the sustainable transportation options in a city, the introduction of micro-mobility markets is still beneficial. According to Cardona, they help improve the city’s overall accessibility. Building infrastructure for electric scooters usually translates to adding more bike lanes to city streets, widening lanes and sidewalks, and increasing accessibility to small businesses. Improvements such as these make traveling around the city much more enjoyable for all, with such benefits as reduced traffic and an increased use of public spaces.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development hosts speaker series every semester to provide opportunities for students to explore professional development related to sustainability and the environment. To learn more about the program, please visit our website or contact Program Manager Cari Shimkus at cshimkus@ei.columbia.edu.

Caroline Horrigan is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an M.S. candidate at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Columbia University.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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