EnergyLast MileStartupsTechnology

Electric scooters scrutinized for environmental impact

E-scooters are pitched to consumers as a breezy alternative to walking, driving or Ubering. 

While companies like Lime and Bird market their electric scooters as an efficient and cheap way to get from point A to point B, they’re also promoting their sustainability in last-mile transit. It’s working. 

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, there were 38.5 million trips taken on e-scooters in 2018. That means over 40 percent of the 84 million rides taken in micro-mobility modes, including electric bicycles, electric skateboards and shared bicycles, were on e-scooters.

Survey data from the Portland (Oregon) Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) shows that one-third of those rides replaced car rides. Another third were merely for enjoyment. Six percent of users reported such enthusiasm over the new mode of transit that they had disposed of their car. Another 16 percent reported they contemplated the disposal of their car. 

The first e-scooter company was Bird, which was launched in 2017. It makes these figures sound like a recipe for environmental health. It’s not that simple. 

In an August 2019 study, which FreightWaves mentioned a few weeks ago, North Carolina State University (NCSU) Environmental Engineering Professor Jeremiah Johnson and students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland found that e-scooters’ environmental footprint surpassed that of the transportation they are  positioned to replace. 

Since the transportation sector produces one-third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, companies like Bird and Lime boast their carbon-free rides. To compensate for their use of non-renewable energy in battery charging and in the redistribution of the e-scooters, both companies purchase renewable energy credits or participate in carbon offset projects. 

In a recent brand-neutral study, Johnson, Hollingsworth and Copeland dismantled a scooter manufactured by Xiaomi, the Chinese manufacturer responsible for the majority of the e-scooters in the U.S. They found 13 pounds of aluminum, a lithium-ion battery, an electric motor and other plastic and steel parts. 

The study concluded that the energy used in the mines, smelters and factories makes up more than half of the e-scooter’s total environmental impact. 

“The real impact comes largely from two areas: using other vehicles to collect and redistribute the scooters; and emissions related to producing the materials and components that go into each scooter,” Johnson said in an NCSU news release.

After the last e-scooter riders of the day park, contract workers called juicers (for Lime) and chargers (for Bird) collect the scattered e-scooters in their personal vehicles and charge them overnight. The logistics of this endeavor is inefficient because juicers and chargers often drive aimlessly to find the e-scooters. The e-scooters then are delivered to the juicers’ and chargers’ homes to be charged and ready for rental. 

The most surprising finding, Johnson said, was that only 5 percent of the overall environmental impact came from charging the e-scooters. 

Johnson believes that companies and local governments can work together to make the collecting and redistribution of scooters more efficient. For example, scooters that are mostly charged would not need to be collected, if they were left at distribution points. 

While the study’s findings may appear unfavorable, Johnson remains hopeful about the e-scooter industry’s ability to adjust. 

“Increasing the durability of the scooters and combating vandalism could increase the scooters’ lifetime and thus decrease their environmental impacts per mile traveled,” Johnson said. “The tremendous and rapid growth of shared e-scooters shows that these services are fulfilling an important and previously unmet need. There is a lot of potential to take actions that could lead to more car trips being displaced.”

One subject the PBOT survey didn’t fully broach was the environmental impact of e-scooter rides replacing walking. FreightWaves Sustainability Market Expert Alexandria Quevedo commented on the extra use of energy due to charging and redistribution. 

“More walks replaced with scooters leads to more frequent use, requiring batteries to be charged more often and more people and time collecting scooters, thus emitting more carbon emissions,” said Quevedo. 

While e-scooter users continue taking joy rides with friends, environmentalists hope that e-scooter riders will ultimately use scooters like they’d use their cars. 

Corrie White

Corrie is fascinated how the supply chain is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. She covers freight technology, cross-border freight and the effects of consumer behavior on the freight industry. Alongside writing about transportation, her poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro.