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How “Green” are the E-Scooters?

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea How “Green” are the E-Scooters?Photo via Bird
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It was the Summer of the Scooter, in Columbus and in cities across the nation, as dockless, GPS-tracked electric scooters appeared seemingly overnight. Plenty of opinions continue to fly around about whether the scooters solve any of the problems they’re ostensibly supposed to – traffic congestion, access to transit, the “first mile/last mile” challenge – or whether they create all new ones.

It’s equally tricky to determine whether the scooter trend can have any meaningful impact on carbon emissions and climate change, and whether that impact is even positive. The two companies distributing scooters in Columbus – Bird and Lime – have both marketed their scooters as “green” products.

“Today, 40 percent of car trips are less than two miles long,” Bird Executive Travis VanderZanden told the Washington Post in March. “Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible so we can get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dr. Harvey Miller, Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at the Ohio State University, has been keeping close watch on the e-scooter trend. He does not, like many, consider them a nuisance, and from a sustainability perspective, Miller says anything that gets people out of cars is a good thing.

“If I wanted to give you a short term goal for sustainable transportation, it’s getting people out of the cars for most trips,” said Miller. “In the long run we have to switch our fleets away from combustion and towards electric. That’s what we need to do in the long run, but in the short run we need to get people out of automobiles, that’s the number one goal of sustainable transportation.”

Obviously, scooter batteries need to be charged at some point, using electricity that still comes overwhelmingly from carbon-emitting sources. But that, to Miller, is a short-term problem.

“The good thing about electrical power is we could convert to clean energy sources,” said Miller. “We’re moving that way with solar power, wind power, battery storage. There’s a bright future for electric powered mobility. But there’s no way to solve the problem around internal combustion engines. If you have combustion, you’re gonna have pollution, noise and wasted energy.”

There remain, however, a few red flags in the notion of a perfectly green e-scooter fleet. For one thing, it’s not just that the scooters have to be charged, but they also have to be transported in order to be charged, usually in the back of a van or SUV. And, of course, Lime and Bird are both private companies without the same responsibilities that COTA or the CoGo have. Earlier this summer, the dockless bike share company Ofo shut down their operation in Dallas. The company gave some of the leftover bikes to local charities, but a few hundred of the bright yellow bikes were simply dumped at a recycling center.

Transit startups giveth and transit startups taketh away. Miller, who was an avid user of car2go, knows that all too well.

“It’s my fear that we keep turning public transportation over to the private sector, who really don’t have much responsibility other than their profits,” said Miller.

But from Miller’s perspective, the potential drawbacks of the scooter trend are clearly outweighed by their sustainability benefits. Essentially, the scooters aren’t even about scooting, necessarily, “they’re really a way of enhancing walkability,” said Miller. Any opportunity to increase the range of where a person can walk is a win, and preparing the people and the city for a future where cars are less ubiquitous is a necessity.

“For short trips we want people to rely on biking and walking and scooters, and for long trips we want them to rely upon public transit, because that’s the most efficient way to move people through a city, is by bus and rail,” said Miller. “As Columbus continues to grow… this automobile oriented system we have here is going to fail… We can accommodate the people but we cannot accommodate the automobiles. It just will not work.”

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