Scooters Are Replacing Biking, Walking and Taking the Bus

by on November 12, 2019 · 5 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Joshua Emerson Smith, at the San Diego Union-Tribune, earlier this month asked the question, “how green are e-scooters?” He proceeded, of course, to attempt to answer his own query. Here below is a summary of sorts of his findings.

In general, he says – as reflected in the sub-head – studies do find that dockless e-scooters are more eco-friendly than driving – but buses, biking and walking remain the greenest travel modes.

“According to studies, many people are currently cruising around on e-scooters as an alternative to cleaner forms of transportation, such as biking, walking and taking the bus.”

  • The scooter craze may not be as green as advertised; Smith summarizes that a growing body of research contradicts what  scooter companies have been touting the last couple of years – that their devices are “not only convenient but a win for the environment.” Also, some local elected leaders have been promoting scooters as environmentally friendly. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer called the devices “game changers” that can help the city realize its ambitious Climate Action Plan goals; Assemblyman Todd Gloria thought he was helping the environment by getting legislation passed that removed the helmet requirement for the scooters.

Why, just recently at a public hearing in San Diego, Lime’s director of government relations claimed to members of the City Council that scooters are what was getting people out of their cars.

  • Research and studies show that actually scooter rides are replacing biking and walking as travel options. Scooters are getting people off their bikes. Data from recent municipal surveys in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon show About 40 percent of scooter rides have replaced biking or walking trips.  A Paris survey was worse – it found 85 percent of scooter rides replaced either walking, biking or public transit trips.

The scooter companies take user polls, and these have “found that on average about a third of scooter trips are replacing car trips, including a sizable 41 percent of the time in San Francisco. Lime said that figure is 35 percent in San Diego.”

  • The carbon footprint of scooters is very low, but not a net gain for the environment – given how people are now using them, according to a scientific study published in August from North Carolina State University. The first of its kind study, “measured the greenhouse-gas emissions per mile for a dockless shared e-scooter and then compared that against the the average car, bus and bicycle.”

Smith quotes Jeremiah Johnson, a researcher and co-author of the report:

“It looks like an increase in environmental impacts … because about half of the scooter rides are displacing walking and riding bikes. If you are one of the riders who is displacing a car ride, you are almost certainly reducing your environmental emissions.”

Everything was taken into account for the lifecycle analysis for scooters; the emissions created

  • from manufacturing
  • from shipping
  • to disposal and
  • to the gas burned while workers drive around searching for scooters to charge and repair.

The study found, “more than 90 percent of emissions were from building the devices and shuttling them around by car.”

  • Making scooters last longer would go a long way toward shrinking their carbon footprint; the co-author of the study, Johnson, stated, “These are changes that are quite feasible. Extending the scooter lifetime, improving the efficiency of the collection and distribution system, those are achievable things. They don’t require new technology. They don’t require enormous changes in the system.”

Some scooter companies have been re-working their original models and have been regularly rolling out new ones. Scooter companies Bird and Lime claim their newest models on average last more than a year. The North Carolina study, however, used a lifespan of 15 months. For comparison, research shows the earlier scooters averaged “between a month to six months.”

Smith continues:

Some transportation researchers have questioned whether such tweaks to the scooter industry will lead to any significant environmental gains. While shrinking the carbon footprint of a device may improve a company’s image, that doesn’t guarantee it will lead to large cuts in greenhouse gas.

“Even if it can have lasting effects on daily travel, unless they connect to transit, the actual vehicle miles that are substituted are just miniscule,” said Dillon Fitch, a researcher who studies travel patterns and commuter behavior at UC Davis. “It’s just a drop in the bucket.”

More suggested improvements that could bring the technology to an overall bridge to greenland?

  • Increase personal ownership of such devices;
  • Get rid of the free-for-all collection systems “that employ gig-economy workers to compete with each other at the end of the day to scoop up as many devices as possible.” It creates a lot of needless driving around in vehicles. Some companies have begun “employing workers to round up scooters that need charging and maintenance. This costs more but allows companies to more efficiently deploy their collection fleets.”
  • invest in devices that log more miles before being scrapped for parts;
  • Establish charging stations – as they have in places such as Chicago, Tampa and Washington, D.C. “We believe charging stations can make our operations more eco-friendly, in that they’ll limit the number of trips our drivers need to make to pick up and charge scooters,” said company spokeswoman Maria Buczkowski. “Eventually these stations will be retrofitted with solar panels.”

Still, there is a promise the technology can improve enough to potentially overturn our reliance on vehicles with emissions and change the urban mode of travel.



{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter from South O November 12, 2019 at 11:40 am

I have been deep in reading about the various studies (and conspicuous lack of conclusive ones) vis a vis scooters and their part in a climate action plan. It is freekin’ complicated, but you did a very nice job cutting through the bullshit and presenting the ‘status of the fratus’ accurately.


retired botanist November 12, 2019 at 3:30 pm

Yep, a welcome summary, thx for that, and doing the tedious reading getting there. Having an informed opinion takes brain work.
Having said that, the take-away message I’m still getting is simple: greenwashing. Especially illuminating is the fact that most of the footprint seems to be centered in the mfg’ing and the collection components, but no surprise there.

I was mildly horrified to read that the expected ‘lifetime’ of the current scooters is 15 months! Whaaat? I have a Dahon folding bike that I’ve had for 15 years and its still working just fine. And I drive (as infrequently as possible) a 2006 Toyota.

So now what? We’re going to be replacing scooters every year for the ‘upgraded, longer-life” models?! This is the same disgraceful scenario of needlessly upgrading smartphones every year when a company rolls out a new one… doesn’t anyone see this as just more “throw-away”, disposal technology? Or…wait for it: Lime can’t use Bird’s charging stations and vice versa, or we’ll need yet another new device to either plug in or somehow convert what we have to make it ‘compatible’ (translation= equivalent to Apple’s chronically proprietary designs)

But, sigh, at the end of the day, what is really, desperately, needed is individual self-awareness about “disposable” products. We have veered into dangerously impactful concepts that embrace the idea that everything can and should be swapped out for seemingly better, newer, gadgets, more apps, more packaging, more slothful home delivery, etc. Whether its scooters, plastic water bottles, styrofoam clamshells, the latest iphone or (god help us) Apple phone/tv watches and ‘essential airpods”, consumer conscientiousness has got to improve.
What was the original premise? Using scooters replaces driving and therefore is environmentally friendly. Uh, definitely not “buying” that yet!
Thx again for an informative piece-


Tyler November 14, 2019 at 7:49 am

We get it. You don’t like scooters. This is a waste of energy.


Frank Gormlie November 14, 2019 at 11:08 am

Tyler, did you ever see this? It’s not about the technology but how scooters were rolled out.


Daniel Smiechowski November 15, 2019 at 9:05 pm

Todd Gloria’s Scooter Fiasco
A few years ago, scooters were brought to our City presumably to alleviate traffic congestion and for the concomitant effect of supporting environmental quality. It’s now safe to say, City leaders including Mayoral candidate Todd Gloria slipped us a mickey. We have not seen these results, nor will we see these results.
Mr. Gloria and other advocates of these toys for little thirty-year-old boys may be masters at public policy but certainly do not understand human nature. Fundamentally, as a mode of viable transportation crossing all age barriers, all weather conditions, all traffic conditions, all terrain conditions compounded by a uniquely American society and culture wedded to the automobile, scooters are better suited for children seeking a joyride and cheap thrill. Coincidentally, it was Mr. Gloria who drew the comparison of society accepting scooters as we did the automobile over one hundred years ago. When was the last time you saw a seventy year old motorist riding a scooter to Vons?
Just as the Pet Rock had a short shelf life, scooters are headed to the trash heap of history. Fads come and go and as the French say, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” There is no better substitute to the idiocy of scooters than to walk, ride a bike, run or God forbid take public transportation. I’m a former Ironman competitor and current triathlete and at age 65 if I can ride a bike, walk and run so can these little thirty-year-old boys.
The inherent dangers of riding a scooter also ought to be quite evident. A couple of months ago in just one instant, I witnessed a young woman in her early twenties crash in Balboa Park landing square on her head without a helmet. She lay on the ground in distress until being assisted with aid. These types of incidents are overcrowding local emergency rooms and the patience of nurses and trauma surgeons. It’s time for the City of San Diego to ban scooters.
My sense is that a group of well-heeled investors with political and social power and connections persuaded local elected officials on the merits of their unworthy scheme. In a sense, the average man on the street had no input into allowing these dangerous toys into our City. As a former member of the Clairemont Community Planning Group, I pleaded with my colleagues to not support the arrival of scooters only to be rebuffed as a lunatic and worse.
The intention of both Mayor Faulconer and Todd Gloria may have been honorable but the results of this alternative mode of transportation are counterproductive to a City in motion. I’m Daniel Smiechowski a candidate for Mayor of San Diego.


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