Engaging with visions of mobilities within the landscape of risk

When describing the commercial port land of Felixstowe (fig. I) as a ‘nerve ganglion of capitalism’ in 2006, a proto-nostalgic horizon ‘blighted by cargo ships’, Mark Fisher was describing a vision of the natural’s collision course with the monetary in words that ooze forth from the ascetic expanse he walked us through, right up to the journey’s reposeful end point, the burial ground at Sutton Hoo (fig. II). Here, in this space, palpable is the sense that the increasingly unseen in today’s world is seen so lucidly that upon listening closer, Beowulf’s verses may come rushing forth upon the Deben mists to play amongst the ancient mounds and time-worn grasses.

Figures I (top) & II (bottom): Felixstowe container port (top) the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, a point of arrival and nerve ganglion of capitalism responsible for the distribution of material commodities across the land along established networks of commerce. By contrast, the ‘sunlit planetary quality of serenity’ offered at Sutton Hoo (bottom) engages with a vision of departure, two different points within a geography that speaks to themes of migration, mobility, and the conflict of boundary in space and time. (sources: Institution of Civil Engineers (top) & thesuffolkcoast.co.uk (bottom)).

In a space as innately human as this, the purpose of the city, the urban, and what it means to exist in it becomes overwritten in the victorious verse and rhythm of nature and the environment, yet there is an eeriness inherent in this vision. A sense of disconnection and immobility that is increasingly disassociated with the ever-expanding urban centres across the world. This is a sense that many might argue is, itself, becoming increasingly overwritten through development and, possibly more directly, through proliferating networks of digital visualisation and communication.

More of us are living in urban settings and more of us are moving to them, what drives this flight to the city, the deeper motivations can only be described as, much like the conditions of the British weather, myriad. What this mobilisation and migration looks like is relatively more straight forward to describe: a need for access to resources through labour, coupled with a space in which to live and be at home, to rest. Mirrored perfectly in Fisher’s visions from Felixstowe to Sutton Hoo, a seamless cross section of the Anthropocene. Capturing the stillness afforded by a space so radically different to the city, where the scale of achievement, to simply occupy a space with as much concrete matter as is condensed into the wondrous square miles of London, Birmingham, and Manchester, amongst many others, by comparison to that which does not occupy the vastness of Suffolk is astonishing. Historically, progress for those who have settled in these cityscapes has, in many senses, been assured, simply through an increased likelihood of encountering streams of revenue and capital, or so goes the utopian visions of the upwardly mobile Mondeo Men and Worcester Women.

Loosely this might be described as the enabling of capital progress, however these connections, patterns and trends underpinning, however loosely, such stereotypical visions of city living have become much more distant for most within the current global climate. A crude utilisation of Tobler’s first law of geography would, when coupled with Mark Fisher’s nerve ganglion metaphor, lead us to deduce that those closest to capital, to the contemporary capital markets of the city, are not as readily likely to benefit from this proximity as they might once have. This sense of capital mobility associated with the city is now fundamentally more precarious and is visually very different from that seen in the past, offering the first glimpse of the landscape of risk.

Of course, this form of mobility is not completely linear as the city has long also been associated with a flux of capital mobility represented by a great, and growing, disparity between those operating at the top of the metropolitan hierarchy, in gleaming beglassed monoliths, and those looking up at them from the mosaic of avenues and streets below. This structural and spatial inequality of the cityscape is as symbolic of the urban as it is of the human condition it embodies, where products of value are exchanged for labour and where, as David Harvey explained in Social Justice and The City, ‘capitalism annihilates space to ensure its own reproduction.’ Historically facilitated by barbaric internal mechanisms in the West, from blockbusting and redlining amongst a spectrum of variable living standards that extend from unthinkable to the decadent, urbanisation and urban expansion reassembling the natural spaces in the pursuit of capital will naturally enhance and further facilitate the growth of inequity and thus, further strengthen the boundaries of the risk landscape.

This does come down to a fundamental connection between capital and risk, where risk is largely framed in the context of ‘asset loss’ but the landscape in which it is most acutely observed, where capital value is most apparent, the city, is where it is, and will continue to be, predominant. Harvey concludes his vision on the engagement with political process as fundamental to traversing the forms of inequality and injustice generated and facilitated through ties to this form of ‘development’. Consequent of the unprecedented recent times we have lived in, and now continue to live through, together, the public inquisitions regarding the moral constitution of those responsible for overseeing political processes challenges any desire for engagement. Age old theoretical undercoats of societal constitution and modernity begin to peel away under the searing heat of growing public discontent whilst those at the very zenith continue to profit financially.

The risk landscape is one fraught with conflict and is perpetually in crisis. However, were this crisis to be wholly one of capital, it would affect everyone. Capital and inequity are one facet of the greater conflict the risk landscape has with the environment at large, as even when this crisis is framed in the context of equity, it finds equilibrium in the continuation of the trend that, depending on where you are categorised within the social hierarchy of the city, you will continue to be worse off from here on out and no amount of ‘levelling up’ will bring about a truly positive change to this course. We are beginning to feel this at home, on a personal scale now through a volatile geopolitical landscape, but that doesn’t mean that labour is any less abundant. The boundaries of the risk landscape will continue to expand beyond this and find a continuing but ultimately existential conflict with the natural environment, generating an accelerated form of risk that is much more linear in outcome. The general message related to this is clear: ‘Adaptation of current modes and systems to emergent environmental risk is needed, with further mitigation required to prevent the acceleration of this risk

The modern human age is liquid, where change and continuity are seen to different degrees and operate at various tempos across time. Were I to define which of the processes discussed throughout this missive are representative of change and continuity, I would posit that the ultimate defining factor of both lie in the hands of nature and not my own. Whilst social categories become redefined through mechanisms closely tied to the city, overwriting of old landscape structures through the proliferation of the urban over time generates a legacy of risk through reparation and over expansion. In appropriating space that is not in the interest of that which inhabits that space, be it the development of floodplains to accommodate homes, the utilisation, or lack, of land due to pollution from past industry, processes of land reclamation, we are clutching at straws. Yet, capital is generated and claimed with little interest for the longevity or safety of those inhabiting these new spaces, asserting a dynamic of equitability for whom exactly?

It is in this dissection of value, it’s definition and by whom (or what), that the vision of the risk landscape becomes truly material. How these values shift, and to what benefit, must continue to be explored if we are to make a sustainable vision of the city into a liveable environment, equitable for all who will call it home. If our mobility within this exploration could be versed in the cognitive, as Mark Fisher did for us, then we are becoming more aware of the trends that connect the naturally seen and unseen with the landscape of risk. Supporting us in the delineation of what is really of and for us against that which appears to be, revealing what it is to be truly of and for the natural.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr. Thomas O’Shea. Dr O’Shea is a postdoctoral research associate with the University of Bristol School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. The primary focus of his research is on developing understanding of the human-water interface with specific interests in the application of social theory, urban and hybrid geographies towards shaping narratives and strategies of sustainability.

This blog is the final blog in the Migration, Mobilities and the Environment blog series, in conjunction with Migration Mobilities Bristol.

Migrants and miners: gender, age and precarious labour in a Tajik resource extractive landscape

Migration is both gendered and aged. It is also deeply tied to the emergence of new extractive landscapes around the world, marked by extractive frontiers pushing into already stressed and fragile environments.  The story of the village of Kante in Tajikistan, of its male migrants and its coal miners – men, women and children – illustrates the ways in which multiple forms of precarious labour appear alongside these new landscapes.

The village of Kante, Tajikistan, 2014 (Negar E. Behzadi)

In Tajikistan, a landlocked country in post-Soviet Muslim Central Asia, men started migrating seasonally for work following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Kante, a village of 1,500 inhabitants on the slopes of the Fann Mountains, 2,000m above sea level, the men gradually began leaving a derelict landscape and a run-down collective tobacco farm. Like most Tajik male seasonal migrants, they left for Russia to find new livelihoods and to escape a country torn by civil war. During the seven years of conflict, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, men who did not fight travelled as far as the Kamchatka peninsula in search of work. Some Kantegui mountaineers became fishermen. Others went to Moscow, Sverlovsk, Irskuk and other big Russian cities to do ‘mardikor’ (the work of men) on construction sites.

When the war ended, some men came back to Kante, only to find destroyed infrastructure, abandoned fields and an uncertain future. So most returned to Russia. In Kante, as in the rest of Tajikistan, migration became a way of life and a rite of passage – every real man in Tajikistan has migrated, provided for his family back home, drunk alcohol in overcrowded compounds, travelled illegally through borders. Some have slept with Russian women, fallen in love, even taken a second Russian wife, leaving a Tajik wife back home (Behzadi, 2019). Life has also changed for those referred to as ‘the left-behind’. Women, children and the elderly live without husbands, fathers or sons for most of the year. Men become absences, photos, voices down the phone, heroic stories, the amount of remittances arriving at the Western Union in the local town.

Unlike villages in the rest of the country, however, Kantegui men have an alternative to migration. The village lies on one of the largest coal reserves in the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, families started digging up the mountain with pickaxes to extract coal, using donkeys to haul their load. At first, families extracted the coal for subsistence, but later they started selling it on a growing informal market. This coincided with a broader turn to coal as a major source of energy across the country. Following Uzbek/Tajik resource conflicts, Uzbekistan shut off the pipeline providing Tajikistan with gas in 2012/13, leading to a new Tajikistani coal development strategy (Behzadi, 2019). The same year, a formal Sino-Tajik mine was established in the village, which blew up the Southern slope of the mountain with dynamite. The rolling stones and big machinery crushed some of the donkeys of the informal miners and damaged their houses. The company brought in engineers and managers from China and pushed informal miners away.

Young boys coming back from the mines with coal bags on donkeys, 2014 (Negar E. Behzadi)

In 2014, around 300 men from Kante and neighbouring villages worked in the formal Sino-Tajik mine. Most Kantegui miners in the ‘Chinese’ mine were men who had retired from migration, tired of the back and forth between Russia and the village. In their 30s and 40s, these men had nothing to prove anymore – they were the ‘djahon didir’ (those who have seen the world) who had come back to a quieter life (Behzadi, 2019). But the formal mine does not offer jobs to all. Those who do not work for the Chinese carry on splitting their year between labour migration to Russia in spring and summer and informal coal mining in autumn and winter. In 2014, around 500 men were working in the informal mines. The hardship of their labour and the simplicity of their tools contrasted with the relative ease of labour in the Chinese mine. Although less arduous, however, work for the Chinese project is a mixed blessing: precarious contracts, unpaid salaries and difficult relationships with Chinese managers take their toll in other ways. And the trade-off is significant: men who accept work for the Chinese mine know it is threatening the very existence of their village. The Chinese are ‘taking all our coal’, many villagers say, in particular the informal miners. Part of the informal mines have already been destroyed, and they fear that the whole village might follow.

Map of informal and formal mining areas in Kante, 2018 (Negar E. Behzadi)

Like migration, extractive labour in mines is gendered and aged. Women and children cannot work in the Sino-Tajik mine, but they do work in informal mines. In the past decade about 20 women have been going mining every day high above the village, and sometimes at night when they know they can go unseen. Some of their husbands, like Nadirah’s (a female miner in her 30s), left the country straight after their wedding and took a second wife in Russia. Now he sends only sporadic remittances. Nadirah goes mining with a friend and her daughter who is 13. Her work is considered ‘ayb’ (shameful) in the village and, as a result, Nadirah is stigmatised and excluded from social networks. But while it is considered unacceptable for women to work underground, it is tolerated for children. Most children start at the age of five, leading the donkey in and out of the coal galleries to the market while their parents extract the mineral on the coalface. ‘Coal,’ says Gulnissar, a mother of a 10-year-old child coal miner, ‘there is only coal in children’s heads today.’

Sino-Tajik mine containers in Kante, 2014 (Negar E. Behzadi)

Male seasonal labour migration, the ‘shameful’ work of female miners and the spread of child mining comprise a few of the many precarious forms of labour that emerge in new extractive landscapes around the world. The story of Kante illustrates the fragmentation of societies along gendered and aged lines that occurs in such extractive landscapes. These new extractive frontiers also often emerge in places that are already socio-ecologically stressed, such as in the countries that emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union.


This blog is written by Dr Negar Elodie Behzadi is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. She is a feminist political geographer and political ecologist who explores questions of resource extraction and migration in Tajikistan and France. She has also co-directed two ethnographic films on resource extraction in Tajikistan: Komor: Journeys through the Tajik Underground and Nadirah: Coal Woman.

Negar Elodie Behzadi

Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on Flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).


This blog is written by Chris Preist, Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods; and Dale Southerton, Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

The politics of climate justice, migration and mobility

Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and the Cabot Institute for the Environment bring together researchers from across the University of Bristol to explore connections between movement and the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Their diverse approaches highlight the importance of developing frames that incorporate both migration and environment, and in so doing benefit our understandings of both. Here, the directors of MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment introduce the blog series through the lens of the politics of climate justice, migration and mobility.


Migration is often mobilised to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Some Small Island States in the Pacific, for instance, may become uninhabitable with sea-level rise. Highly vulnerable countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh and the Maldives, may see large proportions of their populations forced to move because of sea-level rise, floods and salinisation of water. US climate envoy John Kerry recently fuelled fears of a future where food production collapse would force a ‘hundred million people’ to move. His comments strongly implied that even those of us who imagine we are protected from the frontline of climate change will be faced with the challenges of ‘climate refugees’ in their millions.

Moniruzzaman Sazal / Climate Visuals Countdown

Kerry’s remarks were heavily criticised, but this is not to deny that there is a connection between the world’s ecosystems and environment and human movement. It is easiest to causally relate environmental factors to migration in situations of ‘rapid onset disasters’ – destructive events that occur suddenly, such as typhoons or floods. In these situations, people move to survive, but often to a place of safety a short distance away, and they return to rebuild homes and lives once the emergency has abated. But many environmental changes are taking place over periods spanning two or three generations. ‘Slow onset’ environmental change can be a primary or contributing factor to deteriorating socio-economic conditions – increasing periods of drought, or crop yields declining rather than collapsing, for instance. In these circumstances, migration can be an important way to diversify income streams. Environmental change may also contribute to shifts in land usage and land ownership, which again may result in migration.

Declining resources can also prevent people from moving, especially when resources are slowly depleted over a generation or more. Limited access to capital can force people into illegal or exploitative migration or lead them to delay moving until forced to do so in an unplanned way – perhaps because of a rapid onset disaster that they no longer have the resilience to cope with.

The challenges faced by people who don’t move may become more severe when combined with conflict. For example, in Somalia, armed conflict has hindered the movement of pastoralists, who would otherwise relocate as a response to drought. It has also limited the possibilities of humanitarian organisations to assist them. Human mobility and environmental change are deeply interconnected but need to be understood systemically not simplistically if we are work towards climate justice.

Understanding the relationship between migration and environmental change in a more holistic and integrated way has important policy implications. For example, economic factors can mean that people migrate to places of environmental instability as well as migrating from places of environmental instability. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is forecast that by 2050 this will increase to nearly 70%; nearly 60% of forcibly displaced people move to urban areas (World Bank, 2020). Many cities are extremely vulnerable to future environmental change, and already experience high temperatures, sea level rise, water stress and threats to health. Rural to urban migrants are often especially vulnerable, as they tend to move to neighbourhoods with high population density that are prone to environmental risks – think of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the slums of Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai.

Peter Castleton (CC BY 2.0)

In these contexts, migrants, whether rural-urban or international, can be represented as an environmental problem in themselves. The movements of the poor are also represented as a root cause of problems: migration destroys carbon sinks, ‘environmental refugees’ put pressure on already scarce resources and services and so on. Rather than seeing the interconnections of human movement and climate change, the risk is that the politics of climate and the mobility of the poor – that is, ‘migration’ – are framed as oppositional. As a result, in wealthy countries we are seeing increasing tensions between politics of the environment and politics of migration, as illustrated by John Kerry’s remarks.

It is critical, then, to recognise the complexity of the connections between (human) movement and ecosystems. This new blog series, co-published by MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment, draws attention to some of these connections and raises questions for further research to help us understand in more depth the relationship between movement and the environment, and its political significance. The contributions in the series approach this relationship from many angles, ranging from the role of water access in shaping migration to debates around the status of the ‘environmental refugee’. One analyses the environmental footprint of home working versus office working to explore the sustainability potential of our increasing immobility. Others focus on animals and plants on the move: we have writing on the ecological context of bird migrations and on the hyper-mobility of the European eel. Meanwhile, other posts look at the movement of goods and how humans locate themselves in, and move through, landscapes of extraction and risk. In bringing together such diverse topics we hope this series will encourage new conversations about the connections between migrations, mobilities and environments.


This blog is written by Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol; and Professor Guy Howard, Global Research Chair Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

Bridget Anderson
Guy Howard


E-scooters in Bristol: their potential contribution to a more sustainable transport system

Voi e-scooter parked across the pavement outside Victoria Rooms in Clifton. Image credit: Georgina de Courcy-Bower

At the end of October this year, the Swedish company Voi launched their e-scooters in Bristol as part of a pilot scheme. The government brought the scheme forward in the hope that e-scooters would ease demand for public transport and allow for social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier in the year, Marvin Rees said that he hoped e-scooters would help the city reduce congestion and air pollution. These are two key issues associated with a car-dominated transport system present in Bristol and many other cities around the world.

I have been investigating whether e-scooters could help Bristol to meet its sustainable transport targets. These include meeting net-zero emissions by 2030 and simultaneously reducing inequality within the city. However, between 2005 and 2017 the decrease in CO2 emissions in Bristol’s transport sector was only 9%. To reach net-zero by 2030, there will need to be an 88% decrease from the 2005 baseline.

E-scooters have been called a ‘last mile’ solution to fill the gaps between transport links and homes or offices which could draw more people away from their cars. My research has found that policies towards the new micromobility focused on decreasing transport inequalities in the United States. Conversely in Europe, there was more consideration for the environmental impact, but both continents have policies emphasising the importance of safety.

E-scooters and the environment

Despite cities frequently referencing environmental sustainability, few were found to have policies or regulations to ensure this. There was often an assumption that e-scooter users would previously have made their journey by car. However, in Paris only 8% of users would have driven if e-scooters were not an option. This was higher in the US, with cities consistently having a modal shift from cars of over 30%. However, this was explained by the lower availability of public transport compared with European cities. Therefore, US policies would not have the desired effect in Bristol.

A second environmental consideration is the lifecycle analysis of e-scooters. This shows that e-scooters still produce a significant amount of CO2 emissions, particularly when compared to active travel. E-scooters used as part of a sharing scheme are also frequently vandalised which shortens their lifespan. In UK cities which started their trials before Bristol, operators have already complained of high rates of vandalism. Many are also thrown into rivers which causes ecological impacts.

E-scooters and inequality

Many cities in the US have regulations aiming to improve access to transport for low-income communities. This has included unsuccessful discounted services. Operators have often failed to comply or the schemes have not been marketed. A more successful regulation was rebalancing e-scooters to ensure that some are placed in deprived communities. However, operators have claimed that this is economically and environmentally unsustainable. Using large trucks to move e-scooters around the city will increase CO2 emissions associated with them.

It is important that environmental goals do not come at the cost of excluding certain communities in the city, and vice versa. However, overall the most significant factor for decreasing inequality or decreasing CO2 emissions is which mode the shift comes from.

The most effective way to encourage a modal shift away from cars is to reallocate space to other modes and start designing cities around people. However, making such a significant change in the way we live our lives will be met with backlash from some. E-scooters can help mitigate this by providing an alternative mode of transport that could make the reallocation of road space to micromobilities more politically feasible.

Safety of e-scooters

What can be agreed upon by everyone is that e-scooters must be safe for users and for those around them. The main complaints about e-scooters are that they block pavements for more vulnerable pedestrians and in most cities, e-scooters are banned from pavement riding. Nevertheless, casual observation shows that this is often ignored. However, in Portland it was found that the presence of cycle lanes and lower speed limits decreased e-scooter pavement use by around 30%. In Bristol, 70% of respondents for a Sustrans survey supported building more cycle tracks even if it took space away from other traffic. The presence of cycle tracks could also lead to more active travel which has co-benefits for individual health and wellbeing.

Governance of e-scooters

E-scooters and other shared mobility technologies are part of a change in governance. There is now collaboration between public and private and it is essential that communication between the two is transparent. Local authorities must make clear their goals and set boundaries for operators without restricting them to the extent that they are unable to provide their services.

Overall, e-scooters alone are not going to solve our dysfunctional urban transport systems. However, they might provide a catalyst for more radical change away from the car-dominated city.


This blog was written by Georgina de Courcy-Bower, a recent graduate from the MSc Environmental Policy and Management course at the University of Bristol. The blog is based on her dissertation which was supervised by Cabot Institute member Dr Sean Fox.

Georgina de Courcey-Bower