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Electric scooters are here – are they good for the environment?

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Posted June 13, 2019

Residents of many major American cities have likely noticed a marked increase in the number of electric scooters on the streets and sidewalks. This latest transportation craze uses app-based payment to allow riders to easily rent a scooter for a short trip. GPS locators add to the convenience, allowing a rider to leave a scooter anywhere. Scooters are popular with tourists looking for a fun way to explore a city and with residents who would like to avoid using a car for a short trip.

Image credit: Denniz Futalan via Pexels (Pexels licence)

The companies that are behind this transportation transformation include some new players, like Bird and Lime, along with the more familiar names of Lyft, Uber, and even Ford Motors. In a quest for market share, a company may tout the benefits of their own large fleet and how it creates better availability of a scooter when you need it, the convenience and user-friendliness of their app, or the speed, safety, and battery life of their scooter technology. But there is one selling point on which all of the current scooter-sharing companies agree: Electric scooters are good for the environment.

Of course, any new technology has its detractors, and a number of anti-scooter cynics have raised objections to claims that electric scooters are an environmentally responsible way to traverse the city. Predictably, many of these objections rely on either cherry-picked or nonexistent data to arrive at obtuse conclusions that betray their general anti-scooter sentiments. To be fair though, several knowledgeable detractors have shown data that suggests, basically, a need for more data in order to make definitive claims about electric scooters’ environmental impact. And in some cases, their objections to scooters simply suggest to scooter sharing companies that there are ways to make the technology even more green.

As they are currently implemented, scooter sharing programs require that a collection vehicle drive around each night and gather up the scooters for overnight charging. Some detractors have raised a data-based objection to this practice, showing that in markets with a wide dispersion of a relatively small number of scooters, the carbon emissions of the collection vehicle are greater than or equal to the emissions of car trips avoided by people taking scooters instead of driving. Detractors also note that the electricity to recharge a scooter’s battery is usually generated by a carbon-emitting power plant. While these objections may be true, there are several reasons why they are not a good basis for suggesting that electric scooters are bad for the environment:

– There is a linear relationship between the number of scooters being used and the carbon emissions created by collecting and recharging them. In other words, as use increases, per-scooter carbon emissions decrease.

– Some markets take longer to adjust to new forms of transportation. As markets more fully embrace scooters, they can significantly increase the number of scooters per collection vehicle, thereby decreasing per-scooter emissions.

– Scooter sharing is quite new. As technology advances, it’s quite likely that sharing companies will adapt away from collection vehicles by using scooter-mounted solar panels that recharge the scooters as they sit or by trying centralized drop-off points, similar to bike share programs, that recharge the scooters on the spot.

Arguments in favor of electric scooters’ environmental friendliness are many. They are electric, after all, and on average their carbon footprint is extremely low. Zohob Devar, writing for medium.com, did an analysis of electric scooters that suggests as much as 13,700 metric tons of carbon per day could be removed from the air by widespread adoption of scooters as transportation in 500 cities around the world with more than one million inhabitants. This is the equivalent of removing 105,000 cars from the world’s roads each day. Advances in low-carbon electricity production will no doubt reduce scooters’ carbon footprint even more.

An often-overlooked form of pollution in large urban environments is noise pollution. Urban noise has repeatedly been shown to decrease worker productivity and increase levels of stress, anxiety, and aggression. Electric scooters are nearly silent, and widespread adoption of them as an alternative to cars can significantly reduce the deleterious effects of urban noise pollution.

There are certainly legitimate objections to scooters that will need to be addressed with policy. The interactions between scooter riders and pedestrians, for example, presents a safety issue that requires further research. Scooters being left in front of driveways or businesses is a concern as they enter cities like Fresno. The technology to recycle batteries by reusing lithium needs some work. But to object to the use of electric scooters on the grounds that they are not environmentally friendly is simply a dishonest argument.

For those not willing or able to walk or ride a bicycle, electric scooters offer an extremely green mode of urban transportation.

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