Electric scooters aren’t quite as climate-friendly as we thought

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Electric scooter companies like to tout their green credentials, frequently reminding riders that every two-wheeled trip they take can help reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change — but the truth is much more complicated.

A new study from North Carolina State University found that shared e-scooters may be more environmentally friendly than most cars, but they can be less green than several other options, including bicycles, walking, and certain modes of public transportation. Riders tend to think they’re making the right move by hopping on a scooter that’s electric and thus carbon-free. But what they don’t see are all of the emissions that are produced by the manufacturing, transportation, maintenance, and upkeep of dockless scooters.

“If you only think about the segment of the life cycle you can see, which would be standing on the scooter where there’s no tailpipe, it’s easy to make that assumption,” said Jeremiah Johnson, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State. “But if you take a step back, you can see all the other things that are a bit hidden in the process.”

Johnson and his team “took a step back” by conducting what’s called a “life cycle analysis” of the dockless scooter industry. That meant looking at all of the emissions associated with each aspect of a scooter’s life cycle: the production of the materials, like the lithium-ion battery and aluminum parts; the manufacturing process; shipping the scooter from its country of origin (mainly China) to its city of use; and collecting, charging, and redistributing scooters as part of the dockless service.

The study’s conclusions were equal parts obvious and surprising. Driving a car was the least environmentally friendly option, but using the bus — especially a diesel-powered one along a highly trafficked route — was a better option than riding an e-scooter. Walking and riding a bike, or even an e-bike, were also vastly superior to using an e-scooter.

Overall, the average greenhouse gas emissions per scooter mile traveled is just over 200 grams of CO2. By comparison, the life cycle emissions for the average automobile is just over 400 grams of CO2. So riding a scooter is a clear winner over taking a car.

The problem is that only one-third of scooter trips are replacing car trips. The NC State team conducted a survey of riders to find out how people were using scooters and what kinds of trips they were displacing by choosing to ride an electric two-wheeler. Their findings — which are backed up by other surveys of scooter riders — were that 49 percent of riders would have biked or walked, 34 percent would have used a car, 11 percent would have taken a bus, and 7 percent wouldn’t have taken the trip at all.

Even though about 63 percent of electricity in the US is generated from fossil fuels, the environmental impact of the electricity used to charge each scooter is fairly small — around 5 percent of the overall impact, the researchers found. The main culprits were the materials used to build each scooter, mostly the aluminum, and the carbon produced by the vehicles used by independent contractors to gather up and recharge the scooters every night.

There are some simple solutions to these problems that the scooter companies are already trying to tackle. The first is to cut down on all of the driving done by freelancers who collect scooters at night for charging. Lime is trying to do this by introducing a new feature that allows its “juicers” to reserve a scooter ahead of time, thus reducing the amount of unnecessary driving that takes place when juicers are out searching for scooters to collect.

Another way to reduce the environmental impact would be to build a better scooter that lasts longer than the models that were deployed in the early days of the scooter boom.

“If the scooter companies are able to extend the life of their scooters without doubling the impacts of materials and manufacturing, that would reduce the per-mile burden,” Johnson said. “If you can make these things last two years, it would have a very large impact.”

The scooter companies are doing this, too. Bird recently unveiled its latest next-generation scooter with a longer-lasting battery and more durable parts. Lime has also rolled out newer models that it claims improve the unit economics of the scooter business.

But ultimately, the claim that scooter riding is the greenest option available is just not true. And the scooter companies appear aware of that, at least on the surface. Last year, Lime said that in order to make its entire fleet of electric bikes and scooters completely “carbon free,” the San Francisco-based company will begin to purchase renewable energy credits from new and existing projects.

This is a fine idea (although there is some skepticism about the effectiveness of carbon offsets), but it doesn’t address the main problem with the dockless scooter industry’s business model: the use of freelancers to collect and charge a fleet of electric scooters. Lime says it hopes to eventually account for those emissions in its carbon-neutral program, but it hasn’t yet.

Comments

I think part of the problem is this is based off of 1st gen scooters, which were never built for the level of abuse they receive. We’re somewhere between the second and third generation of scooters (Bird is on its fourth now), and we’ll see these things last longer and therefor need less replacements. I’m personally excited about scooters, they’re a great option to supplement public transportation.

And for everyone throwing these in ponds and cutting wires- you’re just hurting the planet.

Throwing them in ponds and cutting brake lines is a bad idea, yeah. But the more general concept of "break the scooters so the companies take financial hits" is sound. There will be no e-waste littered all over our streets, no pollution generated from their manufacture, and no li-ion batteries to pollute ponds with at all if the companies go out of business.

As a device, scooters are neat. If people want to use them and ride them around, that’s all fine and dandy. But the companies involved need to be taken to task for their environmental and civic recklessness. They can solve the civic litter problem by just having docking stations by like services have done for years now instead of acting like they are entitled to the entirety of the commons. This would also help with the environmental issues, because a scooter minding its own business being in a docking station isn’t going to draw as much ire as one that’s in a public walkway or otherwise dirtying our public spaces.

Or maybe, just maybe, cities should just eliminate the argument for scooters entirely and properly fund their decrepit public transportation. The existence of the scooter companies at all is a failure of neoliberalism, capitalism, and and tech ideology.

But the more general concept of "break the scooters so the companies take financial hits" is sound.

No it fucking is not. Destroying someone else’s property because you’re annoyed is insane.

For any other thing, I would agree with you, but these scooter companies don’t play with any rules, so why those who are fighting against them should play by the rules.

Those vandals are doing exactly what those scooter companies have been doing. Move fast, break things.

Depends on where that property is and what it’s doing. If it’s on my property and impeding me, I’m going to handle it.

You do realize how much pollution cars spew out of their exhaust? This directly kills thousands of people per year. They have yet to be ‘taken to task for their environmental and civic recklessnes’.

Not to mention the danger of cars and trucks running people and bicyclists over.

Did you not read the article? Only 39% of scooter rides replaced a car ride. 49% would have walked or biked, 7% would taken also less-polluting busses.

Yes cars pollute more. But you are not going to replace a 30 minute car trip with a 2-hour scooter ride, are you.

So it seems the the bottoms line is – scooters add to pollution rather than reduce it!

Or maybe, just maybe, cities should just eliminate the argument for scooters entirely and properly fund their decrepit public transportation.

They’re a last-mile device, not a replacement for trains.

Docking these things is a huge step in the right direction. It eliminates the public ire by not leaving them littered across public space, it legitimizes them from the municipality’s perspective requiring the dock to be permitted, and it eliminates all of the emissions related to chargers driving around collecting them (assuming the docks charge the scooters).

Scooters have only half the emissions of cars?
Someone forgot to double check all calculations before publishing.
Or were we comparing to this car
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peel_P50

The calculations are done via a "life cycle analysis", not just daily-use emissions. Like many "green" tech (solar panels, electric vehicles), most of the emission costs are hidden in the industrial processes required to manufacture the devices. And, the countries and raw mines these factories are based in usually don’t care at all about emissions.

The saying, "reduce, reuse, recycle" is still very true.

Half is still better than equal or worse. And this is worst case with v1. Only gets better with longer lifetimes, a cleaner grid, and more respect towards them as a valid form of transport (you wouldn’t drive a public bus into a page hopefully)

Looks like someone either didn’t read the article or already made their mind up without pesky ‘facts’ getting in the way.

Read that article. The findings are actually interesting. In short the study found that most trips are replacing lower CO2 options such as walking, biking and public transportation. Meaning the owners are actually increasing their carbon footprint.

and a car’s manufacturing footprint is amortized over 150,000 miles. How many miles does a scooter go before we have to build a new one?

Totally agree. How much metal and manufacturing goes into a car v’s 100 scooters? This calculation seems fishy…

If anyone thought any of the dozens of scooter start ups cared about anything other than getting their foot in the door for the least amount of money possible, well. Yeah.
Scooters aren’t inherently a bad idea but their implementation sucks, and thinking this is the future of transit is laughable. We need better designed cites, and more public transit, but those don’t get flashy CES booths.

I’m not sure why there’s a sudden hatefest on electric scooters on the Verge but it’s getting exhausting. Sure maybe everything isn’t 100% carbon-free, child-labor-free, gluten-free, nature-free, and bear-attack free. Please just let me ride my scooter to work in peace so I don’t have to deal with MUNI breakdowns and crowds of people and cars filling up the streets trying to get to the sports ball game.

Oh, as someone who absolutely loves using these things, hating on them is definitely not a new thing. I don’t think there’s been a single Verge article on electric scooters where at least 95% of the comments weren’t just pure vitriol against scooters.

They are ignoring the problems of pedestrians. Always getting in the way of cars, slowing down intersection throughput, scuffing your car’s paint when bumped into…

Really should hate on anything other than huge SUVs carrying one occupant.

Well build infrastructure for them then. That same infrastructure could also be use by cyclists and other alternative forms of travel.

Verge seem to hatefest on most green technology.

Whether that because they lean towards the right more and trying to discourage their use or are farther to the left of me I can’t figure out.

Or maybe, as in this case, green technology isn’t always as green as it seems?

Exhausting? Oh no! Do you need a bottle of water?

Because you know how wasteful bottled water is, right?

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