According to a new study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University, the wave of e-scooters marketed as tools for cutting down on carbon emissions may not be nearly as eco-friendly as the people offering them claim.
Most metropolitan areas are flooded with people rolling down sidewalks on Bird and Lime e-scooters. Even a daily stroll to Lowers means you’re going to pass at least half a dozen personally-owned e-scooters in the trek from your car to the lineup. The logic is fair and simple in either scenario: using tiny little scooters to zip from point A to point B is better for the environment over time than firing up your car for the same trip. Obviously, they aren’t as eco-friendly as walking or riding a bike in each case, but the new research published in the journal Environment Research Letters says the boom of scooters made available through smartphone apps are producing more carbon than things like taking the bus, riding a moped, or even e-bikes.
“That actual trip somebody’s taking on the scooter — that’s pretty green,” Juan Matute, the deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, told the LA Times. “What’s not green is everything you don’t see.”
It turns out the root of the problem lies in the life cycle of scooters made available by companies like Lime and Bird. An individual ride on a scooter does produce half the emissions of a personal automobile trip, they determined, but there’s a flurry of variables contributing to a larger footprint with their use.
The survey tallied emissions from the production of materials, manufacturing of the scooters, collection and charging methods, and more, and it turns out the types of trips most people take when they pick up an e-scooter on the sidewalk aren’t the kind of trips that would replace even most Uber or Lyft rides. When asked in a survey what method of transportation certain e-scooter trips replaced, 49 percent say they would have biked or walked, seven percent of users said they would not have taken the trip otherwise, and 11 percent would have taken a public bus, while 34 percent said they would have used a car or rideshare service instead.
The main crux of it all, as mentioned, is in how many rides a company can get out of a given scooter. Everyday wear and tear and a serious problem with scooters being vandalized in some areas have driven the average lifespan of some scooters down to just 29 days in Louisville, Kentucky, for example. Estimates have the typical Bird scooter lasting an average of three to four months initially to about 10 months.
On top of an already energy-inefficient process of building and distributing scooters paired with a short lifespan, researchers also found that the processes for collecting them is leaving a problematic footprint too. Researchers found that the nightly collection, charging, and eventual redistribution of e-scooters accounts for 43 percent of their overall global warming impact, making worse than whatever mode of transportation they typically replace 65 percent of the time. The baseline case for riding one mile on a scooter produced the equivalent of 202 grams of carbon dioxide, they say, which is just under half of the baseline of emissions for driving a mile in a car at 414 grams of CO2 per mile. Meanwhile, riding a moped (119 grams), taking a bus (82 grams), biking (8 grams) or walking (0 grams), all produce less emissions than e-scooters when all of the researchers’ variables were accounted for.
“Taken as a whole, these results suggest that, while e-scooters may be an effective solution to urban congestion and last-mile problem, they do not necessarily reduce environmental impacts from the transportation system,” they wrote. “Increasing scooter lifetimes, reducing collection and distribution distance, using more efficient vehicles, and less frequent charging strategies can reduce adverse environmental impacts significantly. Without these efforts, our Base Case calculations for life cycle emissions show a net increase in global warming impact when compared to the transportation methods offset in 65 percent of our simulations.”