Micromobility Reduces Car Emissions More Than Previously Thought

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According to recent research from Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, a scooter ban may ease sidewalk congestion and keep potential riders and pedestrians safer, but it has a price.

In a study looking at the effects of Atlanta’s 2019 ban on e-scooters and e-bikes in the city, travel times rose by around 10% on average. While the restriction was in place, travel times to stadium events, such as soccer matches, increased by roughly 12 minutes per trip, or 37%.

For Atlantans, it amounts to an additional 784,000 hours of idling in traffic every year, just between the hours of 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. when the ban was in place. Omar Asensio, the study’s lead author, agreed that a moratorium during rush hour would only worsen traffic. Asensio and his team at Georgia Tech’s Data Science and Policy Lab believe that e-scooters, e-bikes, and other micro-mobility options can save drivers across the country an average of 17.4% in trip time.

“These are fairly significant congestion effects that most travelers will feel and as an unintended consequence of the safety regulation,” said Asensio.

The study, which was completed at Georgia Tech’s Data Science and Policy Lab and was published in Nature Energy, is the first to demonstrate conclusively how putting money into micromobility infrastructures like e-bikes, e-scooters, and bike lanes can lessen traffic congestion and carbon emissions in urban areas. The analysis took into account various sources of traffic as well as the rise in popularity of ride-sharing services.

“Previous studies on micro-mobility were controversial and contradictory because they relied on travel surveys, which can be unreliable and are subject to biases resulting from self-reported data,” Asensio said. This motivated his search for a more rigorous, data-driven approach to answering the question.

The chance came about in 2019 when Atlanta banned scooters with a geo-fencing policy. To assure compliance throughout the city, the ban was implemented using a remote shutdown on all scooters that were within a specific area. The fact that everyone complied with the rules in Atlanta 100% of the time was unusual compared to other locations where previous moratoria relied on citizens’ voluntary cooperation.

“I thought, okay, that’s interesting because now we have near-perfect behavioral compliance in response to a policy intervention, which turns out to be extremely rare,” Asensio said. “All of a sudden, if you’re without the use of the scooter, what do you do? This created a great natural experiment, to be able to precisely measure the traffic times before and after this policy intervention and in doing so, test behavioral theories of mode substitution.”

Asensio and his team also had early access to the then-new Uber Movement Dataset, which provided them with comprehensive data on commute times throughout the city that was previously only available through surveys. In short, everything came together in 2019 to resolve the controversy around the genuine effect of micromobility on city traffic.

Mary Feeney, program director for the Science of Science Program at the National Science Foundation, which supported the research, said “Asensio and his team are using newly available ‘big data’ sources to tackle practical questions with real policy implications. Bringing the appropriate data and analytical approaches to these problems helps empower decision-makers to enact evidence-based policy.”

Reducing congestion also reduces emissions, noted Camila Apablaza, who worked on Asensio’s team along with Savannah Horner, Cade Lawson, and Edward Chen. “I thought this was an important question because the impact of certain modes of transportation, such as scooters, is sometimes overlooked,” she said. “We know that electric mobility will be the main contributor to decarbonizing the passenger transportation sector, therefore we need to understand the interactions between different modes of electric transportation.”

But, “the point of this paper is to present the idea that it’s not just as simple as ‘we should ban the scooters,’ right?” said Chen. “We have found that there are, in fact, trade-offs between banning them for public safety versus allowing them to relieve traffic congestion, and whether or not city governments make the decision does ultimately have an impact on people’s daily lives.”

The researchers discovered that using e-scooters and e-bikes instead of only using public transportation or walking does, in fact, help to relieve traffic congestion by displacing some personal automobile or ride-sharing use. Asensio estimates that the time saved by drivers countrywide adds up to $536 million annually when measured in monetary terms.

“This is also just a personal thing,” Chen added. “I’ve lived around here my whole life. I start seeing these scooters around, and this kind of answers that fundamental question: are people actually using these, and are these actually replacing trips and inherently reducing all these carbon emissions?”

On data innovations in policy analysis and effect evaluation, the Data Science and Policy Lab collaborates with the corporate sector and local governments. This project’s follow-up research could dig further into the particular transit replacements people chose and why.

Asensio said, “I think modeling the emissions impacts for those will continue to be an ongoing kind of investigation,” he said. “When it comes to electrification, micro-mobility is just one of many strategies that are aggressively being invested in by both the public and the private sector. It’s a really exciting opportunity to meaningfully reduce emissions and to benefit from the public health co-benefit of reduced air pollution.”

Atlanta’s law was one of many that American cities enacted in response to a surge in accidents and hospitalizations caused by micromobility devices. This highlights the need for protected lanes for e-bikes and e-scooters.

Source: Georgia Tech

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