The sequel to last summer’s transportation blockbuster will be authority-approved.

They came in like outlaws. No notice, no negotiations, no permits. Just 100 electric scooters suddenly swarming on the streets and sidewalks of Downtown and Walker’s Point.

From late June to early August last year, Bird Rides Inc. defied Wisconsin statutes and Milwaukee authorities as riders downloaded its app to find and rent the “dockless” scooters. Fed-up city officials were poised to cage the Birds when the company flew the coop, pulling the scooters out just as suddenly as they arrived.

It was the same kind of disruptive tactic that Uber had used to enter this and other markets four years earlier: Don’t ask permission, don’t worry about local laws, just offer the service to customers and dare the authorities to do something about it.

But when Bird and its competitors return to Wisconsin this summer, that won’t be the way they roll. These rebels without a parking place will have to play by newly written city and state rules if they want to touch the pavement in Milwaukee, Madison or other communities.

Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Reps. Mike Kuglitsch (R-New Berlin) and Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield) introduced legislation to allow the scooters in April. With bipartisan backing, its sponsors did not foresee snags or controversy, and it was expected to reach Gov. Tony Evers’ desk by late May or early June. The bills would authorize the new vehicles to operate under many of the same laws as Segway scooters, but with wide latitude for additional regulation by local governments.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Milwaukee is setting up a pilot project to allow scooters on a trial basis as soon as state law changes, says Mike Amsden, the city’s multimodal transportation manager. Madison – which wasn’t invaded by scooters last year – is creating a similar plan, although its pilot may not start until late summer, Madison traffic engineer Yang Tao says.

The rules will ensure that scooters operate safely, don’t block streets or sidewalks and are distributed equitably throughout neighborhoods, not just in high-traffic Downtown and tourist areas, Amsden and Tao say. After both pilot projects end late this year, city officials could decide whether to allow scooters permanently, ban them or extend the studies, Amsden says.

Placing these scooters in the same legal category as Segways is a legislative irony that helps put the controversy in perspective as well.

Segway kick-started a wave of mobility innovations in the early 2000s, claiming to be a revolutionary technological breakthrough that would transform transportation. It didn’t live up to the hype, and today, “Segways are mainly used for tour groups in big cities and mall cops,” says Eric Sundquist, director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative at UW-Madison.

But Segway convinced Wisconsin and other states to legalize its vehicles before they hit the streets, a path successfully followed by other transportation innovators. Milwaukee officials were on board before car-sharing service Zipcar entered the market in 2007 and before local nonprofit bicycle-sharing service Bublr Bikes launched in 2014 (after an initial 2013 foray as Milwaukee B-Cycle).

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Bublr partners with the Milwaukee County Transit System, placing bike stations at key bus stops to provide “last-mile” connections to riders’ final destinations, transit system spokesman Matt Sliker says. The bike-sharing service planned to introduce new vehicles for riders with disabilities in June, says James Davies, Bublr’s senior director of operations and planning.

Uber flattened that cooperative playbook when it drove into Milwaukee in 2014. As in other cities, the app-based ride-hailing service horned in and hacked off taxicab companies, who complained about the unregulated competition. The city let Uber and rival Lyft operate while aldermen changed ordinances to allow them.

Bird couldn’t get that kind of grace period because state law prohibited its vehicles, says Robert Schneider, associate professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee. “You can’t just allow anyone to use your public right-of-way in ways that could be dangerous or disruptive,” Schneider says. Davies agrees, saying Bublr Bikes doesn’t mind the potential competition, but Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley mantra “‘Move fast and break things’ is not the attitude you want to bring to the public right-of-way.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden, an Appleton native and UW-Eau Claire graduate, was a top executive at both Uber and Lyft before founding his company in Santa Monica, California, in 2017. His controversial tactics have paid off: Bird exploded into a $2 billion multinational corporation in less than two years.

Bird’s top competitor, Lime, initially copied its method, dropping scooters unannounced on California streets. But Lime apparently lost its taste for that approach after enough sour reactions from local authorities.

In fact, while providing shared pedal bicycles in Green Bay for about four months last year, Lime was a model partner, respecting local concerns and ensuring its bikes didn’t block city or campus streets, say Matt Buchanan, Green Bay city economic development specialist, and Ben Joniaux, the UW-Green Bay chancellor’s chief of staff. When Lime left to focus exclusively on electric bikes and scooters, “We were really bummed” but parted on good terms, Buchanan says.

Lime backs a Wisconsin scooter law and looks forward to cooperating with the Milwaukee and Madison pilot projects, says Nico Probst, Lime manager of Midwestern governmental relations. “The way you scale this program is to show you’re a good partner,” Probst says.

Bird declined a request for comment. But Milwaukee and Madison officials have been in contact with multiple scooter companies, Amsden and Tao say.

Controversy aside, how much impact might the scooters have if they’re not ruffling authorities’ feathers? Shared bicycles have found success that way. Bublr Bikes averages around 100,000 trips a year by about 20,000 riders on almost 700 bikes, from 88 stations in Milwaukee, Shorewood, Wauwatosa and West Allis, Davies says. In Green Bay, 2,208 people took 4,576 rides, totaling 4,778 miles, on about 150 Lime bikes from late July to early December, Buchanan says.

“It can benefit both sides if there’s some collaboration and cooperation beforehand,” Tao says. “We think that’s a better approach.”

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The Self-Driving Distruptor

THE STREETS OF Milwaukee may never be the same.

Bird, Uber, Lyft and other recent transportation innovations will seem inconsequential compared with the impact of self-driving cars, whenever they arrive, experts say.

“If people use autonomous vehicles the way they use cars now, we’re screwed,” says Eric Sundquist, director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative at UW-Madison. “Congestion will go through the roof.”

Some studies suggest Uber and Lyft have increased big-city traffic as they drive between passengers, say Sundquist and Robert Schneider, associate professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee. However, autonomous vehicles would add far more traffic and pollution than ride-hailing services if people tell their cars to drop them off somewhere, go home and return to pick them up, instead of parking, Sundquist says. Although that might ease parking pressures, questions remain whether self-driving cars can safely navigate urban traffic with pedestrians and bicycles, Schneider says.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is studying the issue and preparing for self-driving trucks on I-94 between Mitchell International Airport and the planned Foxconn plant in Mount Pleasant. But neither the Milwaukee Department of Public Works nor the Milwaukee County Transit System are planning for the arrival of autonomous vehicles, spokesmen say.

Self-driving cars could have a positive impact if people share them, Sundquist says. But after all Milwaukee’s efforts to encourage biking and walking, Schneider says, “I hope we don’t revert to people in their own little boxes.”


“The Birds II: Lawful and Orderly” appears in the June 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning June 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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