Are shared e-scooters good or bad for cities and the climate? Do they reduce congestion and pollution, or not? In figuring out which side of the argument to take, the public, cities, and the media often miss the broader point—the answer is largely up to us. With the right supporting action by cities, these small-wheeled electric vehicles can provide more convenient, enjoyable, and efficient ways of making short trips, reclaim public space for bikes, and increase the value and use of public transit. To achieve these gains, and more, it will be up to all of us to better understand the factors and levers to unlock the benefits of e-scooters.
In this article we explore the climate impact of e-scooters, which is related to the interaction of four factors: (1) the amount of energy required to propel each shared scooter and the carbon-intensity of producing that energy, (2) the ways in which scooters are collected, recharged, and distributed across the service area, (3) the emissions from manufacturing the scooters, and (4) how shared scooters integrate into the existing mobility ecosystem. Each factor, further described below, individually and collectively shapes the environmental impact and benefits.
Factor 1: Electric motors are over three times more efficient than combustion engines and moving a person on a 30-50 lb. e-scooter takes a fraction of the energy compared to a 3,000-4,000 lb. car or SUV. One study estimates that scooters are more than 1,000% more efficient per mile than the average combustion vehicle based on the energy needed to move them. Even if e-scooters’ batteries are powered by a grid that relies on fossil fuels, the emissions per mile from the electricity generation is negligible.
Factor 2: The way e-scooters are handled for charging and redistributed to balance the coverage area can be a much larger factor determining the emissions they create. If they are picked up one by one in a diesel truck, emissions can be significant. Fortunately, improving the efficiency of pick-up, recharge, and distribution is in financial self-interest of the companies. This is why we’re seeing new innovations including the use of cargo bikes, electric vehicles, and even scooters with swappable batteries, since it’s cheaper and less emissions-intensive to replace a battery than to pick up and charge an e-scooter each time it runs low on juice.
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