Last updated: January 2nd, 2023
Electric scooters are hard to miss these days..
They continue to pop up almost overnight in major cities, and the personal scooter market is absolutely booming as well.
Consequently, they’re a lot of commuters’ minds…and perhaps yours.
But in practice, how well do they work for commuting, errands, and other practical uses?
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Here’s whether electric scooters are good for commuting
Electric scooters are ideal for commuting short to medium distances on maintained streets. They are emission-free, quiet, and especially useful on hills that get tiring on a bicycle or kick scooter. Battery life can be a limitation, and not easily upgraded. Also consider a bicycle or e-bike for rough surface or heavy rain.
Some small electric scooters even fit on a bus or train, but shared scooters may be easier to manage around transit.
|Commute Conditions||Electric Scooter Suitability|
|Length||Up to roughly 10-15 miles, depending on battery life, power availability, and your comfort while standing|
|Terrain||Up to roughly 10% grade, higher for some models|
|Surface quality||Free of potholes or debris more than about 1″ tall|
|Weather||Dry to moderately rainy(depending on model), and above freezing|
|Cargo||No more than a backpack and/or very small handlebar bag|
Why electric scooters are great commuter vehicles
There’s a lot to be said for a fun electric vehicle that may even get you out of traffic altogether.
And in the right circumstances, they’re just about perfect for commuting on.
They’re extremely convenient
Biking to work is great, but the truth is it’s not always doable. Showing up sweaty can be a huge problem, and even when showers are available at work, it’s not always realistic to use them.
And, hey, sometimes you just don’t feel like it! Nothing wrong with that.
What’s more, it’s nice not to worry about whether your clothes are OK to cycle in. Slacks and skirts and other “bad” cycling clothes are usually fine when you’re upright and not pedaling.
(Pro tip: there’s no real exertion while riding, so wind feels much colder than you’d think. It’s not like cycling, where you warm up as you go. So, unless it’s scorching hot, you’ll appreciate a wind-resistant jacket. And consider warmer pants/leggings/long underwear when it’s below 45F, give or take. In severe weather, cycling rain pants may be just the ticket.)
What about infrastructure & route choice?
Besides how you ride them, electric scooters are often convenient in terms of where you ride them.
Fortunately, if you have a good bicycle route available, then it’s probably a good scooter route, too.
Local laws vary widely, so check with your city and county before risking a fine or impounding.
And when riding on bike routes, just remember that now you are the one with the fast, motorized vehicle that might frighten others. In brief, be respectful, since you might feel to cyclists a bit like cars feel to you.
They’re a ton of fun
If you ever rode a Razor scooter as a kid (or adult!) then you know the pleasure of gliding along in the fresh air. No worries, no hurry, and certainly no bulky vehicle to worry about.
Electric scooters can bring that feeling to every single commute or errand around town. It’s great to be a kid at heart, and all the better when it’s super-practical at the same time.
And even as a lifelong cyclist, I’ve got to admit that climbing hills with the twist of a throttle is awfully enjoyable. Certainly more so than struggling to pedal.
The right ones are more capable than you’d think
It’s easy to ride a shoddy rental scooter and think they’re all dinky, bumpy toys with terrible brakes.
To be sure, some are.
The bad ones are scary to ride at best, and outright dangerous at worst.
There are a few reasons why, and some are inherent to scooter design. I’ll elaborate on this later, when we get to disadvantages.
But others are easily remedied.
If you opt for at least 10″ wheels and a mechanical front brake (as opposed to an electric one), then you’ll be surprised at the steadiness over rough asphalt and a bit of gravel.
Of course, you still need to watch the terrain carefully. And in busy urban surroundings, that’s easier said than done.
But just because some rentals ride horribly does not mean private ones will. That is, not if you choose well.
They’re relatively affordable and sustainable
All the fun and convenience in the world don’t mean much if they wreck your bank account, the planet, or both at once. (Ahem, luxury cars…)
True, high-performance scooters get expensive, but those aren’t necessary or even useful for most commuters. In fact, the model I consider ideal (Ninebot Max; available here) costs in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands.
In other words, expect to pay roughly the same as for a well-equipped city bicycle…but with a motor to usher you up hills and through headwinds.
Sustainability is a bit of a tricky question when we’re talking about large batteries. Suffice to say that they don’t last forever, and then they’re complicated to dispose of. Likewise, shared scooters take serious beatings, which shorten their lifespans considerably.
But if you’re replacing car trips with scooter trips, all signs point to a net benefit.
The lack of gas and emissions is obvious. But equally important is that scooters don’t cause costly wear and tear to roads, don’t require expensive new infrastructure, and stand little chance of harming others in a crash.
More personally, AAA says the all-inclusive cost of a small car in the US is a whopping $0.61 per mile.
If an $800 scooter replaces just 5 miles of driving every weekday, then it will pay for itself in about a year. For most of us, it would happen sooner.
And the second you break even, all further savings go straight to your bank account.
Concerns about commuting by Electric scooter
Electric scooters make motorized transportation fun and accessible.
For many commuters, that’s already reason enough to buy one.
However, they also have some weaknesses that mean trouble in certain conditions. Below are the ones I think about most.
Poor surfaces can be dangerous
Most affordable electric scooters have roughly 8″ wheels. That is small enough that sidewalk cracks can be dangerous and mere pebbles can throw your handling for a loop.
This, combined with the poor leverage of narrow handlebars, means you’ve got to exercise a lot of caution.
In comparison, even a small-wheeled folding bike (like a Brompton) feels like a Cadillac!
Multiple studies have found that most crashes on shared scooters don’t involve anybody or anything else. That implies they’re not easy for new riders to adapt to.
The average first-time renter probably has ridden a bicycle before, but that experience doesn’t seem sufficient. (And after riding both extensively, I think that’s absolutely true. Scooters just take more caution, especially with 8″ wheels like most rentals have.)
Now, the easy solution is simply to opt for a model with larger wheels. At least a couple of affordable models have 10″ wheels. I can attest that the difference is huge.
It’s not like 2″ more diameter turns it into a monster truck, but it does let you focus more on traffic and other surroundings without worrying so much about the ground.
Regardless, you still need to know what lies ahead. And if your route involves significant debris and/or serious potholes, I’d strongly recommend a bicycle instead.
Take your climate into account
Besides terrain, the weather is also a concern.
Standard bicycles work fine in anything but deep snow or ice. Electric scooters, unfortunately, are just out of the question in some conditions.
Firstly, batteries and water don’t mix, and certain manufacturers address this much better than others. That’s part of why I like the Ninebot Max: it stands up to outdoor storage in rental fleets, and is waterproof enough to take in moderate rain.
Secondly, think about the ground itself. Even when rain stops, you’ll still have slippery paint and manhole covers. Puddles that look harmless may be deep enough to soak the scooter’s electronics. Worse yet, they may hide a dangerous pothole.
Those latter cautions apply to bicycles, too, but they’re more serious for scooters. Even with large, 10″ wheels, you just don’t have the same traction or room for error.
Battery life limits range
When you read battery life claims, remember that most manufacturers are talking about slow riding (~10mph), at a steady pace, in warm weather, on flat terrain, without headwinds, and with a fairly light rider.
Unless your commute meets all those criteria, expect the real-world range to drop by 20-30% or more. And batteries very slowly lose capacity over time, so range will only decrease.
Use that information to figure out a more realistic range estimate. Then, ask yourself three questions:
- Can you still get to work?
- Can you charge at work, or also get back home if not?
- Can you have room for a detour or errand on the way if need be?
If these all check out, then you should be in the clear.
If not, then consider a regular or electric bicycle to avoid a strict range limit.
Some are less portable than you’d think
Most reasonable fit adults can carry a 25-lb electric scooter at least several yards. That’s enough for most everyday situations, like getting from the doorway to a desk or storage room.
However, that’s about as light as they get. Longer range means a heavier battery, which increased the weight to 35-42 lbs or so.
A safer, stabler ride also means bigger wheels, a longer wheelbase, and a larger folded size.
Bottom line? Any scooter that’s pleasant to ride more than a few miles will be challenging on crowded transit.
So, for regular transit use, consider buying a folding bike or using a shared electric scooter. For very short trips in nice weather, an adult kick scooter is the cheapest and lightest option by far.
There are few ways to carry cargo
The same things I wrote here about cargo on adult kick scooters also apply to electric scooters.
In brief, all you can safely mount to the scooter is a very light handlebar bag. Bicycle-style racks and baskets aren’t generally possible.
That means most of your load goes in a backpack or messenger bag.
Since you’re not exerting yourself, a heavy backpack (and sweaty back) shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Just ensure it fits snugly to avoid unexpected shifts in weight. (Something like More Miles Active Backpack from Lululemon is a great example, but anything design for running or light hiking should work.)
But if you’re prone to shoulder and neck pain with backpacks, then you’d probably be more comfortable on a city bike instead.
Safe routes aren’t always available
We’ve talked about the scooter themselves, but not yet about the places to ride them. And that’s a key part of your decision.
Virtually no locales allow electric scooters on sidewalks. Fair enough, since they’re understandably scary to pedestrians. And to be fair, reckless renters have given all scooter riders a bad name.
That means bicycles lanes and paths are the reasonable choice. If they’re well maintained in your area, then you’re good to go.
Unfortunately, we don’t all have that option.
Bicycle lanes in many places are poorly maintained, not adequately protected, or just non-existent.
If that’s your case, then commuting by electric scooter may require riding on the street with cars.
It isn’t my place to say “don’t do that,” but I just don’t see much upside to riding an inconspicuous ~15mph vehicle amid frantic drivers.
Wrap-up: does an electric scooter make sense for you?
In principle, electric scooters are terrific vehicles.
There’s a good reason they play a role in the future of personal, local transportation.
They bring sustainable, affordable convenience to your commute. They can also share bike infrastructure in many places, which can make safe routes more accessible.
However, they aren’t for harsh conditions. Batteries lose capacity as they get colder, and persistent rain can be an electrical problem as well as a traction/safety problem. Rough terrain is also a challenge, but larger 10″ wheels can help quite a bit.
So, are they the right vehicle for you?
If you can afford one with adequate range, you won’t often take it on transit, and your terrain and weather are decent, then I’d say yes.
Renting a shared scooter is the easier way to test the idea. Just remember that rentals are often in poor shape, so you’ll have a much better experience on one you own!
P.S. If you’re considering an electric scooter for commuting, errands, or other practical purposes, then the Ninebot Max (hands-on review here) is hard to beat. It’s a bit heavier than most, but brings fantastic range, ride quality, and value. I consider it the best option for most daily riders.