If you visit a city these days, you are sure to see Lime, Bird, Spin, or Skip electric scooters zipping between traffic and pedestrians or parked in rows near busy restaurants and malls. But these electric scooters might not be as green as you think. Shared electric scooter companies like to boast about their carbon-free credentials but that is not the whole truth.
The Influx of Electric Scooters Across the U.S.
Love them or hate them, electric scooters seem to be here to stay. Shared or “dockless” — meaning riders don’t have to return them to a charging station after a ride — electric scooters rolled onto U.S. city streets in 2018 and ever since, have been rented millions of times over.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials revealed that 38.5 million trips were taken on shared electric scooters in 2018, overtaking station-based bicycles as the most popular form of shared micro-mobility transportation in the U.S. in just the first year they were widely available.
The eclipse of the docked bicycles was mainly due to the introduction of a staggering 85,000 electric scooters available for public use in U.S. cities compared with 57,000 station-based bikes.
How Micro-Mobility Is Changing Urban Transport
As electric scooters have become more widely available to the public, a micro-mobility revolution has surfaced: U.S. citizens increasingly opt to travel the “last mile” by alternative over traditional transport methods.
The changing landscape of urban transportation can be boiled down to two factors. The first is the ubiquity of electric scooters and smartphones. People can easily locate and rent shared electric scooters by using an app. After a small financial transaction conducted through a smartphone app, the renter can ride a scooter for a set period of time. The ability to pay from a smartphone app using a credit card makes the process of using an electric scooter extremely convenient.
The second factor is the dockless appeal of the shared micro-mobility devices. It is easy to see why electric scooters eclipsed the number of docked, station-based bikes in 2018. If a rider rents a docked bike, they need to return it to a docking station. But the dockless electric scooters can be found, ridden, and left almost anywhere. The convenience of hopping on an electric scooter, riding it from A to B, and leaving it wherever you want contributes significantly to the popularity of these shared micro-mobility devices.
The Recharge Process
Scooters don’t charge themselves. Throughout the day, the scooter service deploys people driving cars or trucks to collect scooters that have run through their electric charge. Batteries must be plugged in, and the maintenance person who picks them up must haul them to a workspace to recharge tired scooters.
Besides the source of power used, moving scooters from where the last rider left them to a recharging center — which may be someone’s home — produces the same CO2 output as the car or truck used. It’s a two-way trip and scooters must be redistributed where riders are likely to find and use them. We can’t calculate the total emissions, but if you are looking for a green ride, seek scooters from companies that document how much mileage and the types of vehicles used to collect and distribute their two-wheeled transportation.
The Invisible Carbon Contributor
At face value, electric scooters appear to be carbon-free modes of transportation. But what you can’t see may come as a surprise.
Just like all other modes of transportation, electric scooters need fuel. With traditional modes of transportation such as cars, it is easy to see the pollutants being emitted from their tailpipes. But that is not the case with electric scooters. Although electric scooters may not directly emit emissions through tailpipes, they do contribute greenhouse gases once you factor in the energy used to charge the scooters.
The widespread use of electric scooters and the energy needed to keep the wheels rolling has had a direct effect on the environment. Research from Electric Scooter Insider revealed that, once you factor in the CO² that is released as a result of producing and delivering the electricity needed to charge the scooters, 146.21 grams, or about a third of a pound, of CO² is emitted for every mile ridden.
Bloomberg reported that the scooter riders average 1.5 miles per trip. Combining this with the 38.5 million trips, approximately 57.8 million miles were traveled on electric scooters in 2018. In fact, electric scooters contributed 9,308 tons of CO² in 2018, equivalent to the energy use of an average house for 650 years.
However, it’s not all bad. The amount CO² emissions would have been far greater if those 57.8 million miles were traveled using gas-powered cars. Traveling that distance by car instead of electric scooters, the amount of CO² emitted could have been more than double (22,720 tons).
Electric scooters may not be carbon-free but they still contribute 59 percent less CO² compared to the average car in America (356.91 grams of CO² per mile).
Current State of Electricity Generation in the U.S.
In 2018, fossil fuels made up the majority (63.5 percent) of U.S. electricity generation. This played a significant role in the CO² per mile emission factor for electric scooters.
Charging an electric scooter using clean energy sources would substantially reduce its carbon footprint. The current status of renewable energy sources for the U.S. accounts for only 17.1 percent of all electricity generated. The growing popularity of electric scooters is just one more reason the U.S. needs to expand its investment clean, renewable energy.
The electric scooter, if powered by renewable energy, is a win for the environment. It’s up to you to learn about the power sources a scooter service uses.
How clean electric scooters are is totally dependent on the energy source used to generate the electricity needed to charge them. As such, conscious consumerism will play a significant role in the future of these micro-mobility devices and their impact on the environment.
As environmentally conscious consumers, we should know the source of our energy. If you don’t know how your electricity is generated, ask your electricity service provider. If your electricity comes from a clean, renewable energy source like wind, solar, or hydropower, you can feel good about riding and charging your electric scooter — or electric car.
About the Author
Josh Frisby is the founder of Electric Scooter Insider, a site that reviews and recommends the best electric scooters. He also conducts extensive research studies into the micro-mobility industry to uncover interesting insights that spark debate and increase the exposure of electric scooters to the general public.
Feature image courtesy of Marek Rucinski from Unsplash