Are shared e-scooters actually good for the environment?

Electric scooters in use in Santa Monica, California. Image: Getty.

Shared dockless electric scooters, or e-scooters, transport riders over short distances in cities. Ride share companies promote them as an environmentally friendly choice that reduces dependence on cars.

To properly assess these claims, it’s important to consider all relevant environmental factors, including the materials and energy required to manufacture scooters, the impacts of collecting them daily for charging and redistributing, and the electricity that charges their batteries.

I study methods for assessing environmental impacts of products and materials. In a newly published study, I show that e-scooter programs may have larger total environmental impacts than the transportation modes they displace. But if cities update their policies and mobility companies tweak some of their practices, there are opportunities to make e-scooters a greener option.

The electric scooter boom

Anyone who lives in a city or near a college campus has probably seen e-scooters. Designed for short-distance travel, these devices have a small electric motor and deck on which a single person stands. Ride share companies such as Bird and Lime rent out scooters by the minute, and riders leave them at their final destination to be claimed by the next user or picked up later for charging.

In 2017 these programs were rare, but in 2018 riders took an estimated 38.5 million trips on e-scooters. These devices fill a singular niche for some people, solving the “last mile problem” – the last leg of a trip, which sometimes can be the most difficult, since it may mean walking home from a bus stop or train station. Scooters are an alternative to driving and parking a personal automobile, and often are cheaper than a taxi or Uber.

“Your ride was carbon free” – really?

The transportation sector generates nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and a large share of smog and asthma-inducing pollutants. With no tailpipes to spew emissions, it would be easy to assume that shared e-scooters are an environmentally preferable option. E-scooter companies often tout the environmental benefits of their “carbon-free” and “earth-friendly” rides.

Screen shot from an e-scooter user’s smart phone at the end of a ride. 

To support these claims, Lime has pledged to purchase renewable energy credits to cover the electricity it uses for charging and carbon offsets for their operations. Bird purchases renewable energy credits and carbon offsets to cover electricity and scooter pick-up and drop-off.

Environmental claim from Bird’s web site.

However, claims of a full carbon-free ride don’t hold up when all of the actions required to have an e-scooter ready, at the right location and charged for use are considered. With North Carolina State University engineering students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland, I turned to a life cycle approach to fill in the gaps.

Hidden impacts

Chinese electronics company Xiaomi manufactures many of the e-scooters used in the United States. To understand what materials go into each scooter, we took one apart and inventoried the 13 pounds of aluminum, 2.5-pound lithium-ion battery, electric motor and various plastic and steel parts.

Manufacturing these scooters and other electronic products has effects at the mine site, the smelter and the factory. For e-scooters, we calculated that these production impacts often exceed half of the total impacts caused by each mile of travel on a scooter.

Shipping e-scooters from China to the U.S., however, has a trivial effect, thanks to the efficiency of the global transportation network.

North Carolina State University students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland disassemble an e-scooter to create a material inventory. Image: Jeremiah Johnson/creative commons.

E-scooter companies employ independent contractors to collect, charge and redistribute the scooters to desirable locations. Lime calls these folks “Juicers”. Their counterparts at Bird are “Chargers”, and they distribute the fully charged scooters into Nests.

These collectors typically drive their personal automobiles to round up as many scooters as they can, then charge them at home and return them the next day. The logistics are not optimised, which leads to unnecessary driving on the hunt for scooters. We found that this mileage can generate over 40 per cent of the total environmental impacts of e-scooter use.

In contrast, powering e-scooters requires relatively little energy. Charging a fully depleted e-scooter battery uses about as much electricity as running an average clothes dryer for five minutes. And most e-scooter batteries are nowhere near fully depleted when picked up, particularly in cities that require companies to remove scooters from the streets each night. In Raleigh, we found that about one out of six scooters were over 95 per cent charged at the end of the day, but were still picked up for nightly charging.


Vancouver’s plan to achieve carbon-free transportation by 2050 includes urban design and mobility pricing as well as vehicle choices.

Other ways to get there

It is important to consider what e-scooters are displacing when quantifying their relative effects on the environment. Surveys show that about one-third of e-scooter rides replace automobile use, while nearly half of scooter users would have walked or biked instead. About 10 per cent would have taken public transit, and the remaining 7 per cent or 8 per cent would not have made the trip at all.

Our study found that driving a car is almost always less environmentally friendly than using an e-scooter. When only one-third of e-scooter rides displace automobile travel, then the use of e-scooters likely increases overall transportation emissions by drawing people away from walking, biking or taking public transit. However, if e-scooters were to displace car rides half the time, we would expect them to be a net win for the environment on average.


Lightening scooters’ footprint

Our research highlights several ways to make these scooters more sustainable. Using e-scooters that are designed to be more durable can reduce environmental impacts from the materials used to build them on a per-mile traveled basis. Improving collection and distribution processes could reduce driving distances, and companies could use more fuel-efficient vehicles to collect the scooters. For their part, cities could allow scooters to be left out overnight and only picked up when their batteries are depleted.

For now, however, a scooter ride that doesn’t replace a car trip is unlikely to be a net win for the planet.

Jeremiah Johnson, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, North Carolina State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.