08/16/2019

Are Electric Scooters Actually Good For The Environment?

3:54 minutes

a row of green and black electric scooters with large wheels lined up on a grey sidewalk next to the street
A line of electric scooters ready to rent in San Diego, California. Credit: Arne Beruldsen/Shutterstock

Electric scooters are the latest urban transportation sensation. Last year alone, Americans took 38.5 million rides on electric scooters. From Los Angeles to Austin to Atlanta, people are now scooting to get around.

Scooters are electric, emission-free, and must be replacing gas-guzzling car trips. That has to be good for the climate, right?

But a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters says electric scooters actually aren’t very green. Researchers tallied up all the carbon emissions in a scooter’s “life cycle”—manufacturing, shipping, recharging—and found that scooters produce more emissions per passenger mile than an electric bike, a moped, and even a standard bus with high ridership.

One major cause of scooter emissions? The fact that they’re transported within cities, by cars, to overnight recharging locations and places they’re likely to be picked up the next day.

There is good news for scooter fans, though—policy changes have the potential to make them greener.

Sigal Samuel, a staff writer for Vox based in Washington D.C., joins Ira to talk more about the study.


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Segment Guests

Sigal Samuel

Sigal Samuel is a staff writer at Vox. 

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

Because every story has a flip side. You know, if you live in an urban environment, urban electric scooters are the latest rage, from LA to Austin to Atlanta. People are scooting to get around. And these things are electric by every stretch of the word. And there’s no gas guzzling involved. Then it’s got to be good for the environment, right? 

Well, a new study in the journal, Environmental Research Letters, says not quite. Sigal Samuel is here to fill us in. She’s a staff writer for Vox in Washington. Sigal, welcome to Science Friday. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: Hey, thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: So tell us about what’s the bad news about electric scooters. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: Well, I’m sorry to be the purveyor of bad science news, but unfortunately, this study seems to show that scooters are actually worse for the environment than the modes of transportation that they’re displacing. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh. Well, give me the details, please. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: So, the scooters themselves don’t actually emit carbon dioxide or anything. So they’re good in that sense. And they’re certainly better than driving a car. But the researchers basically analyzed the life cycle of a scooter, so what it takes to manufacture them, transport them around a city, the whole life cycle. They found that most of the harm to the climate comes from manufacturing the scooter and from transporting it around the city. 

Because at night, after we’ve dumped our scooters on the curb, these people called juicers or chargers are tasked with driving them around the city, gathering them up in cars, which, of course, use gasoline, and then repositioning these scooters in places where people will ride them in the morning after they’ve been recharged. 

IRA FLATOW: So you’re negating the whole idea by driving around the city. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: Unfortunately, yeah. It’s a pretty inefficient way to do this. 

IRA FLATOW: Is there any good news about the scooter? Any good thing that’s going on? 

SIGAL SAMUEL: Well– 

IRA FLATOW: They are better than cars, right? 

SIGAL SAMUEL: They are better than cars, and the study isn’t all doom and gloom. It does make some concrete recommendations about how we could make scooters a legitimately green option, which, for example, could include allowing scooters to remain in public areas overnight, so that they don’t need to be moved around by car, even when they’re 95% charged. 

We could also incentivize the use of efficient electric vehicles to collect and redistribute them. We could streamline the collection and redistribution, so that the juicers and chargers aren’t wasting all this gas as they zigzag around the city trying to find scooters to collect. 

So there are some concrete things we could do to make this a green option. It’s just right now, it’s not actually a greener option than, say, riding a standard bus with a high ridership or riding a bicycle. 

And when the researchers looked at surveys, they found that half of the people riding scooters say that they would have biked or walked if scooters weren’t available. And of course, biking or walking are better for the environment than scooters. 

IRA FLATOW: And I’m sure these scooter companies are responding by saying something wrong with this study or whatever. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: Exactly. Yeah. Lime actually responded to the study and said, we think the study is based on assumptions and incomplete data. But actually, the study is pretty consistent with some previous research on scooters. So it does appear to be pretty sound. 

IRA FLATOW: I have my own solution. We leave scooters around, we take them home, we charge them, we plug them in, and then we get a credit on our electric bill. So everybody can take a scooter in. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: Yeah, that’s a pretty good idea, actually. And that’s how private scooters work, so you know. 

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’m not a genius, but some things are a little easier. Thank you, Sigal. 

SIGAL SAMUEL: My pleasure. 

IRA FLATOW: Sigal Samuel is staff writer for Vox based in Washington.

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About Camille Petersen

Camille Petersen is a freelance reporter and Science Friday’s 2019 summer radio intern. She’s a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Her favorite science topics include brains, artificial brains, and bacteria.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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