Over the last 20 years, further refinements in the design and miniaturization of electric motors as well as the advent of scooter ride-sharing services like Bird have meant that electric scooters are quickly proliferating across the streets and sidewalks of American cities.
The convenience of these easy-to-use, highly maneuverable and easily portable personal transportation vehicles in urban environments is beyond dispute. With the capability of traveling upwards of 15 mph, electric scooters can make urban commutes or trips out to eat much faster, more enjoyable and lots cheaper than what is possible with owning and operating a car.
However, another of these high-tech machines’ main selling point is that they are also far more environmentally friendly than car ownership, ridesharing or even using public transportation systems. To many who are considering either purchasing their own electric scooter or using the services of a scooter-sharing service, the question of environmental friendliness is far more than an afterthought; it is a central reason that they are considering making the switch.
Intuitively, the question of whether or not electric scooters should put a smile on Mother Earth’s face might seem to have an easy answer: The scooters have tiny, highly efficient electric motors that require no direct burning of fossil fuels.
But it turns out that establishing electric scooters’ environment-friendly bona fides isn’t as easy as it may at first seem. This is because how those scooters are getting their electrical charge matters far more than people may think.
Where you ride matters a lot
It may seem counterintuitive, but where you live is the single largest factor in determining how environmentally friendly riding an electric scooter will be.
For example, if you live in Chicago, riding a scooter may be convenient. But surprisingly, it may not be any eco-friendlier than taking an Uber or a taxi. That is because Illinois still generates 40 percent of its electricity from coal. And even though modern electric scooter engines are highly efficient, there is just no way of escaping the physical necessity that a motor capable of propelling a non-aerodynamic 175-pound person miles down a sidewalk must, by the laws of physics, consume quite a large store of electricity.
In the state of Illinois, that electricity is likely to come from coal-fired power plants, which are among the most pollutive means of power generation that exist.
Although electric scooters are probably slightly worse than using a ride-sharing service in Illlinois, they are probably not that much worse. So, if you really prefer the open wind in your face, the opportunity to be outdoors and the downright fun experience of using an electric scooter, at least you don’t have to feel too bad about using one in Chicago.
However, if you are in Charleston, West Virginia, using this power-hungry mode of transportation leaves a Brontosaurus-sized fossil-fuel footprint on every cubic meter of air through which you might scoot. That’s because America’s coal state, perhaps unsurprisingly, generates a staggering 90 percent of its electricity from the combustible rock. If you happen to live in Charleston, electric scooters may still be environmentally competitive with fully laden Mack Truck oil tankers or Bluebird motor lodges. But the good-old internal combustion engine found in Uber, Lift and public-transportation vehicles make those the clear choice for the eco-conscious Charlestonian commuter. Across the pond in the UK, nearly 15 percent of electricity comes from wind turbines.
The good news for Californians who want to feel good about riding their electric scooters is that doing so is fully justified. That’s because California’s power infrastructure is among the cleanest in the country, virtually eschewing the use of coal while getting a nation-leading 16 percent of its electric power from hydroelectric sources, second only to Washington state.
California also gets 10 percent of its power from solar sources, and much of the rest comes from renewable and other clean generation methods. All of this means that those who choose to ride electric scooters in that clean-power state can not only feel exuberant while zigzagging across a sidewalk on a beautiful day, but they can also legitimately pat themselves on the back for significantly contributing to a greener and cleaner planet.
What about everyone else?
As a general rule, if your state or local area is getting less than 50 percent of its energy from coal, riding an electric scooter is probably more eco-friendly than driving a gas-guzzling car or truck. And even at 50 percent coal generation, it’s probably not a ton worse than driving a car with great fuel economy or taking an Uber or taxi. On the other hand, it may still be significantly worse for the environment than using public transportation and is certainly worse than riding a bike or walking. Even in San Francisco, riding a bicycle or using your own two legs is easier on the planet than an electric scooter.
However, those who live in states that still rely on coal should take caution: Even driving a one-ton pickup truck a couple blocks to the corner store is likely to be worse than using an electric scooter for the same mission. The good news is that people who live in coal states have the opportunity to personally make a huge difference in the planet’s future by simply choosing to bike or walk.
Filed under: Electric Scooters