May 20, 2024

Shared dockless electric scooters, also known as e-scooters, are used to transport passengers for short distances within cities. Rideshare companies advertise their services as a green option that helps reduce dependence on automobiles.

To evaluate these claims properly, it is important to take into account the environmental impact of all relevant factors, which include the material and energy needed to create scooters, the ecological impact on them from collecting them every day for charging and distribution, and also the power that recharges their batteries.

I am studying ways to assess the environmental effects of materials and products. In a new study, I have shown that e-scooter applications might have more ecological footprints than the other modes of transportation they replace. If cities change their policies and mobility companies modify certain practices, there is a chance to make e-scooters a more sustainable alternative.

The boom of electric scooters

Anyone living in a city or close to a campus or a college is likely to have seen e-scooters. These are specially designed for short-distance travel. These vehicles have a small electric motor and a deck where a single person sits. Ride-sharing companies like Bird or Lime offer scooters to rent at the minute. Users depart them at their final destination to be picked up by the next customer or later picked up to charge.

In 2017, these kinds of programs were scarce, but in 2018, riders made approximately 38.5 million trips using electric scooters. They are a unique segment for some and solve problems with the ” last mile problem,” which is the final portion of a journey that can be most challenging, as it could mean walking back from the train station or bus stop. Scooters offer a substitute for driving or parking your vehicle. They are usually less expensive than taxis or Uber.

“Your ride was carbon free.” What is that?

The transportation industry is responsible for more than 1/3 of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and also a significant portion of asthma-inducing and smog-causing pollutants. Without tailpipes that release emissions, it’s easy to conclude that shared electric scooters are the most environmentally friendly alternative. E-scooter manufacturers often boast about the environmental advantages of their “carbon-free” and “earth-friendly” rides.

Screenshot of an E-scooter’s smartphone towards the conclusion of their ride. CC BY-ND

To back up the claims made, Lime has pledged to purchase renewable energy credits to pay for the electricity it uses to charge carbon offsets and other operations. Bird buys renewable energy credits as well as carbon offsets to pay for electricity and scooter pickup and drop-off.

Environmental claim on Bird’s web website. CC BY-ND

However, claims about the complete carbon-free experience don’t remain true when all the steps required to have an electric scooter on the road, in the correct location, and charged to use it are taken into consideration. Together with North Carolina State University engineering students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland, I decided to use the life cycle method to fill the gaps.

Hidden impacts

Chinese electronics firm Xiaomi produces a variety of e-scooters that are used throughout the United States. To determine the materials that are used in each scooter, we dismantled one. We measured the thirteen pounds of aluminum used, a 2.5-pound lithium-ion battery, an electric motor, and other steel and plastic parts.

Making these scooters and other electronic products can have effects at the mining site, smelter, and manufacturing. We found that the production effects usually exceed half of the total impact generated by each mile traveled on an electric scooter.

The shipping of electric scooters from China into the U.S., however, is not a major issue because of the efficacy of the global transportation system.

North Carolina State University students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland disassemble an electric scooter and make an inventory of the materials. Jeremiah Johnson, CC BY-ND

E-scooter firms use an independent contractor to take care of the collection, charging, and distribution of the scooters to desired locations. Lime refers to them as Juicers. They are the same as Bird Chargers, and they distribute fully charged scooters to Nests.

Collectors usually drive their cars around all the scooters they can, and then charge them from home, and then return them the following day. The logistics aren’t optimized and result in excessive traveling to find scooters. We discovered that this type of mileage can result in over 40 percent of the overall environmental effects of using e-scooters.

However, a charge for electric scooters consumes a tiny amount of energy. The process of charging a completely depleted e-scooter battery consumes about the same amount of energy as running a typical clothes dryer for 5 minutes. The majority of e-scooter batteries aren’t completely exhausted when they are taken away, especially in cities where companies are required to take scooters off the streets every evening. In Raleigh, we discovered that one of six scooters was more than 90% charged by the time of day’s end; however, they were still taken for charging at night.

Vancouver’s plans to have carbon-free transportation by 2050 also include mobility pricing and urban design and vehicle options.

Alternative methods to reach there

It is essential to take into consideration the things that e-scooters can replace in assessing their impact on the natural environment. Research shows that approximately one-third of e-scooter journeys return car use, as a majority of people who ride scooters could have walked or cycled. Around 10% of them would have used public transportation or walked, while the rest, or 8% of people, would not have made the journey in any way.

Our research found that driving a vehicle is almost always more harmful to the environment than riding an electric scooter. In the event that only one-third of e-scooter trips replace car travel, the use of scooters is likely to increase overall pollution from transportation by attracting people away from walking, cycling, or taking public transport. But if they were able to replace automobiles for a quarter of the time, we could anticipate net positive for the environment in general.

Lightening scooters’ footprint

Our study reveals several ways to create more sustainable scooters. E-scooters made to last longer can help reduce environmental effects due to the materials used to build them on a per-mile journey basis. Improved distribution and collection processes could cut down on driving distances, and businesses could make use of more efficient vehicles to collect the scooters. In addition, cities might allow scooters to be parked at night and then managed when their batteries have run out.


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