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the road ahead

When shared e-scooters first started popping up on U.S. sidewalks in 2017, it was heralded as the arrival of the future of commuting – at least according to the companies who put them there.

Lime, one of those companies, said its goal is to replace all car trips under eight kilometres.

But, in some cities, it’s been a bumpy road.

In the Canadian cities with scooters, including Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa, there have been complaints about riders racing down sidewalks and using the scooters for drunken joyrides. There’s been another big problem – some riders drop off the scooters pretty much anywhere.

Unlike some bike-sharing programs, which have docks where you pick up bikes and then drop them off, shared e-scooters are dockless. You use an app to find the nearest scooter and then, when you’re done, you leave it on the side of the sidewalk.

Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen. While cities and companies have rules about where exactly you can drop off the scooters so they’re not blocking sidewalk traffic, users don’t always follow them.

Last year, Montreal axed its e-scooter pilot project, which launched in 2019, because users weren’t leaving the scooters in designated parking spots.

A city report found that the scooters were parked properly only 20 per cent of the time.

This spring, Toronto voted not to allow a shared e-scooter pilot there. One of the worries was that dockless scooters could block sidewalks and create a hazard for pedestrians with disabilities.

One potential way to solve free-range scooter parking problems? Docks.

In Europe, Paris has launched a pilot to test docks where scooters from any company can dock and charge. The docks, made by Duckt, a startup, fit 20 e-scooters into a space the size of a parking spot for a car.

To make installation less complicated, the docks attach to existing street furniture with an electrical connection, including street lamps or transit shelters.

Users prefer docks?

In a study in Zurich that looked at how people were using micromobility, more people chose docked bikes and docked e-bikes more often than they chose dockless e-bikes and dockless scooters.

Docked e-bikes and docked bikes were especially popular during peak commuting times in the morning and evening.

During those peaks, people chose e-scooters the least often out of the four options.

The results suggest that users might prefer docked e-scooters over dockless scooters for commuting, said Daniel Reck researcher at ETH Zurich and the study’s lead author.

“That points us in the direction of building docking stations for free-floating modes,” Reck said in an interview. “And in a way, dissolve a bit this two-system thinking where we either have station-based or free-floating.”

Part of the reason commuters might prefer docks? Reliability. The docks don’t move around.

Reck suspects that users rushing to work prefer to have a set place where they can pick up an e-scooter, instead of having to look on an app to see whether there’s a scooter nearby. But Stewart Lyons, CEO of Bird Canada, said docks aren’t the only way to solve clutter woes.

Other options include scooters that physically lock to a bike rack before letting you end your ride, or virtual parking where the scooter only ends rides in designated areas.

“It’s got to be a bunch of things,” Lyons said. “That study said docked e-bikes are better for commuters coming out of a station because they can see the e-bike had a full battery – so maybe docks would make sense somewhere like Union Station in Toronto.”

Bird, which has scooters in six Canadian cities including Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Windsor hasn’t used docks yet.

“The problem with docks is that it depends on where you put them,” Lyons said.

If scooters can’t be left anywhere, that limits where people can start and stop a ride.

“So you’d be defeating the purpose of scooters,” Lyons said.

Plus, since scooters are seasonal cities may not want to install permanent docks for them that sit empty all winter, Lyons said.

Flawed model?

Docks may help shared e-scooters be greener, Reck said.

While the scooters themselves don’t emit CO2 while you ride them, they get recharged by contractors who round them up in diesel or gas-powered trucks every night.

Because of that, the net CO2 emissions from shared e-scooters are higher than transit.

“What would be good [instead] is to have hubs where they can charge,” Reck said. “For this, we would need standards that allow the charging of different vehicles from different companies.”

If the hubs – which could include multiple vehicles, including e-scooters, e-bikes and bikes – were located near subway stations and transit stops, they might help people cover distances that may be too far to walk.

That could make combination trips – for instance, transit, an e-scooter and then a short walk – more convenient than taking a car to work.

But there are other issues with shared e-scooters for now. For instance, they tend to replace transit and walking instead of replacing car trips.

They also tend to be more expensive than transit, which means they might not be an option for many to rely on to get around.

“If you’re talking about revolutionizing transportation, there’s a huge mismatch between the marketing and [what we’re seeing],” Reck said. “I would say there’s much discussion around them because they’re so visible and they take up so much space, but I’d say overall usage is still pretty low compared to cars.”

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