FOR ALL THE media narratives focusing on the unsavory aspects of the shared scooter and bike networks that have landed in cities in recent years—the clutter, the safety hazards, the lost parking spots—these “microbility” services have the potential to solve some of the biggest problems confronting urban and suburban communities. They can expand access to public transportation, reduce our environmental footprint, and save us money. Micromobility can be just as transformational as solar power or electric vehicles—with impacts that will be felt much sooner.
Cities certainly must address legitimate concerns over safety and how best to absorb large volumes of two-wheel traffic on their streets and sidewalks, and the solution lies in more thoughtful and equitable allocation of street space. Land and lanes should be taken away from cars and dedicated to scooters and bicycles. Public transit systems should be redesigned to better integrate and leverage emerging micromobility networks.
The stakes are high. For cities, there may be no faster and cheaper way to slash carbon emissions, reinvigorate mass transit, and address America’s wasteful and codependent relationship with the automobile.
Looking for proof? This series of infographics, by Valence Strategic's Levi Tillemann and designer Lassor Feasley, breaks down the key reasons why policymakers ought to encourage micromobility’s proliferation. The enormous scale of environmental and land-use challenges confronting an increasingly urban global community means that there’s no time to lose.
The most inefficient thing about driving a car is the car itself. The average American weighs about 175 pounds. According to a 2016 study by the US Department of Energy, the average American car weighs just under 4,100 pounds—23 times more than the person it carries. So most of the car’s energy is used to move the vehicle itself. Our reference e-scooter weighs just 28 pounds and runs off an efficient electric motor. That gives it a huge advantage in terms of energy use.
One kilowatt hour of energy carries a gasoline-powered car a little less than a mile. A much more efficient Tesla Model 3 can travel about four miles on the same amount of energy. An electric scooter can travel more than 80 miles—or 333 laps around a football field.
In fact, e-scooters are so efficient, a human would burn about nine times as much energy walking and about four times as much energy bicycling the same distance.
The Cost of Fuel
In their early years, electric vehicles and renewable energy have struggled against cheaper incumbent technologies powered by fossil fuels. In contrast, e-scooters are generally cheaper to utilize than alternatives like public transit, taxis, and personal cars.
Part of the reason for that is that the cost of fueling an e-scooter is a little more than 1 percent of the cost of fueling even a car that delivers a respectable 28 miles per gallon. Over weeks, months, and years of commuting, those savings add up. The same thing that makes e-scooters environmentally friendly makes them economically attractive: efficiency.
The Cost of Production
E-scooters aren’t just energy efficient, they’re capital efficient. For the price of one long-range Tesla Model 3 (approximately $53,000), you could purchase more than 100 high-quality electric scooters. And while there are certainly conditions under which a scooter won’t be your best option (rain, snow, long-distance drive, moving kids or a pet), roughly 60 percent of US trips are under 5 miles and most of the time drivers ride alone.
For a huge proportion of the trips Americans take, micromobility has the potential to provide transportation at a much lower economic and environmental cost.
Not only are e-scooters energy efficient to use, they are energy efficient to manufacture. An average American automobile weighs about 4,100 pounds, and its production creates roughly 2seven tons of CO2 emissions. A short-range EV actually has a slightly higher carbon footprint than a gasoline-powered vehicle when it rolls off the manufacturing line (about 8 tons), but it generates much less carbon on the road, making it a greener alternative.
An e-scooter weighs just 28 pounds, and requires far less energy to manufacture. While we don’t have exact numbers, it’s probably safe to assume the embedded energy is less than 1 percent of the embedded energy in an automobile.
As communities across the globe struggle to improve access to transportation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they should recognize micromobility as a powerful and available ally. Electric micromobility devices are orders of magnitude cheaper to build, more energy efficient, and more fuel efficient than other alternatives. They require little or no additional infrastructure.
These benefits should be considered as city planners decide what rules to impose on micromobility providers and how to allocate urban space. Cash-strapped governments are in desperate need of cost-effective solutions to mobility and climate challenges.
And while micromobility won’t provide all the answers, it’s an important piece of the puzzle.
OK, So What?
For thousands of years, streets were built for pedestrians, vendors, and horses, and then eventually for carriages, cable cars, and bicycles. But over the 20th century networks of streets, avenues, and highways were purpose-built to carry rivers of metal—cars, hydrocarbons, and attendant emissions—across neighborhoods and continents. As cars got heavier, faster, more comfortable, and more ubiquitous, communities were designed to cater to them. Streets became polluted and perilous places for cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists. Today, in the US alone, road transit is responsible for 1,556 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions and 40,000 deaths annually. Driving both of those numbers toward zero ought to be a top policy priority in the decades to come.
Fortunately, cities across America and the world have an opportunity to reboot their relationship with mobility, and potentially to break the link between transportation, oil, and the attendant emissions. For all the enthusiasm surrounding electric and self-driving cars, micromobility devices (small electric scooters and bicycles) may in fact be a much more powerful and immediate tool for slashing emissions and transforming our urban and suburban communities.
There will be challenges and surprises along the way. Policymakers should treat these as data points instead of roadblocks and work to promote a system that is as safe and efficient as possible. Politicians and bureaucrats should also accept that the spread of micromobility is inevitable. It responds to critical problems confronting our cities, and in some senses it was a long time coming.
This new modality also represents the surprising conclusion of a quest that started with the oil embargoes and environmental movement of the 1970s, when idealistic engineers envisioned ultralight, “right-sized” electric vehicles as a way to break the addiction to fossil fuels. While today’s electric scooters and bikes are less grandiose than the teardrop racers many anticipated, they are harbingers of the same vision.