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the road ahead

Philip Milley of Ontario rides an e-scooter in Calgary earlier in 2019.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Have you ever been stuck in a traffic jam and thought to yourself: “If only I had an e-scooter right now”?

Lime, the e-scooter and e-bike sharing company that operates in more than 120 cities including Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal, put up billboards in congestion-plagued Los Angeles last month telling people to leave their cars at home and take a scooter instead.

Instead of sitting in your car in gridlock, the company says, you could be exploring neighbourhoods on a scooter.

Proponents of micromobility – the use of small electric-powered vehicles including e-scooters and e-bikes – say it’s cheaper than cars and is better for the environment.

But could it actually reduce congestion and the number of cars on the road?

So far, there’s not much research showing how many people are hopping on a scooter instead of into a car – whether it’s their own car, car sharing, taxi, Uber or Lyft.

When Paris Lime users were asked in a survey how they would have made their trips if they hadn’t had a scooter, 47 per cent said they’d have walked, 29 per cent would have used public transit, 9 per cent would have biked and only 8 per cent would have used a car.

During a pilot project in Portland, 34 per cent of local riders and 48 per cent of tourists took an e-scooter instead of driving a personal car or using Uber, Lyft or taxi.

It’s still too early to know whether Canadians are using micromobility to replace car trips. Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal are still looking at the data from their pilots this summer and fall.

Sightseeing and bar-hopping instead of commuting?

In Montreal, some early results showed that people were mainly using e-scooters in the evenings instead of taking them to go to work in the morning.

“In the first month, there wasn’t much usage in the early morning and evenings,” says Grant McKenzie, an assistant professor in the department of geography at McGill University who studies micromobility. “Because they were such a novel form of transportation, people didn’t trust them to get to work, which was a time-sensitive trip – to get to the bar was less time-sensitive.”

They’ve been pitched as saving the planet, but what if shared e-scooters end up just being used more for fun or sightseeing instead of for commuting?

“I personally believe it’s a viable option moving forward,” McKenzie says. “One of the things that’s incredible is people’s ability to avoid exercising – offer them an e-bike or scooter and people will jump on it if it means they’re not sweaty when they get to work.”

But maybe e-bikes and e-scooters don’t have to replace car trips, says another researcher.

“I don’t think the point is to replace car trips, the point is to give people a mobility option that’s better than the alternative,” says Don MacKenzie, an associate professor and head of the sustainable transportation lab at the University of Washington. “If you’re a company, the point is to make money.”

Ideally, micromobility could help people spend less time commuting, getting them the last kilometre to and from public transit more quickly. You can go farther, faster than you can by walking – especially if you have limited mobility.

And that could be especially useful not just for people who don’t want to drive, but for people who can’t afford to drive.

“If it replaces walking, is it a bad thing?” MacKenzie says. “I don’t know.”

It might be. There’s research showing that transportation that involves physical activity, such as walking or cycling, can reduce illnesses including cancer and cardiovascular disease, says Dr. Ben Beck, senior research fellow at the School of Public Health at Monash University in Australia.

While it’s not clear yet how e-scooters will impact people’s health, there some research showing that some e-bikes, the kind where you still pedal but get electric assist, could be as good for you as traditional cycling.

“Many have thought that such devices may reduce physical activity levels, but research has shown that people who ride e-bikes typically have longer trip distances and therefore often have similar physical activity to traditional bicyclists,” Beck writes in an e-mail.

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