For Milwaukee, Summer Without Scooters Looks Likely

Bird and Lime say they want to come back, but Milwaukee officials haven’t set rules for their return, as pandemic and protests take priority

Electric scooters could join festivals, concerts and public swimming pools on the list of things that Milwaukeeans will have to do without this summer.

Mayor Tom Barrett had said, “I assume they’re coming back,” if scooter companies choose to return, in response to a viewer’s question during an online chat with Milwaukee Magazine on April 30.

But, as they grapple with the challenges of a global pandemic and ongoing street protests against police brutality toward African Americans, neither the Barrett administration nor the Common Council have completed work on the rules that would govern scooters this year and beyond.

If those rules aren’t in place by July 1, “That could mean the city of Milwaukee could go the entire year without scooters,” says LeeAaron Foley, Midwestern government relations manager for Lime, one of the three scooter companies that operated here last summer.

Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman says he’s not expecting any action that quickly. “Scooters are probably not going to be back this summer,” says Bauman, chairman of the council’s Public Works Committee, which would review any proposed rules.

Illustration by Rob Dobi

No rules existed two years ago, when another company, Bird Rides Inc., dropped 100 of its scooters on the streets of Downtown and Walker’s Point without notifying the city. Like its competitors, Bird’s scooters are dockless — meaning they don’t operate from fixed stations — and customers must download each company’s app to find and rent them.

Some residents eagerly embraced the option, while others complained about dodging moving scooters or navigating around vehicles abandoned on sidewalks. City officials warned that the scooters weren’t legal in Wisconsin and were preparing to seize them when Bird pulled out on its own.

By the summer of 2019, the state had legalized the e-scooters, on terms similar to those governing Segway scooters, but with more leeway for municipal regulation. Milwaukee set up a pilot program for Bird, Lime and a third company, Spin, to operate last year. Public works officials planned to use the results of the pilot program to recommend whether aldermen should allow the e-scooters to come back temporarily or permanently, or ban them.

In his online chat, Barrett said sentiments remain sharply divided along age lines, between scooter-friendly young adults and older residents who see the vehicles as a safety hazard. Bauman says he received many constituent complaints from pedestrians and the disabled.

But Robert Schneider, associate professor of urban planning at UW-Milwaukee, says he considers the pilot program “a success,” with Milwaukee riders doing a better job of following municipal rules than in other cities. “It would be nice to see the experiment continue in 2020,” Schneider adds.

Midwestern markets where Bird, Lime or both have resumed service this year, or plan to do so soon, include Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City and several cities in Minnesota and Ohio. Chicago also expects to bring back scooters, still on a pilot basis, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in May.

In every city where they now operate, the companies are sanitizing their vehicles and encouraging riders to practice social distancing, wash their hands and follow other precautions, say Foley and his Bird counterpart, Blanca Laborde.

However, Milwaukee administrators haven’t yet sent their analysis of last year’s program to aldermen, says Brian DeNeve, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works. Bauman says the analysis was under way, “and then everything just hit a brick wall in March,” as the city’s focus shifted to battling the coronavirus outbreak.

Foley says Lime was told the scooter rules weren’t a high priority for city officials during the pandemic. DeNeve says it’s true city officials are concentrating on coronavirus response and on other priorities, such as closing streets to allow more pedestrian and outdoor dining use.

Bauman says scooters are a low priority for him, and no one has asked him to schedule a committee hearing on the issue. DeNeve says it’s still possible his agency could recommend a scooter program later this year.

But with coronavirus fears limiting public transit ridership, Foley and Laborde argue that e-scooters could provide an important transportation option. In cities where service has resumed, both Bird and Lime say they’re seeing increased ridership and longer trips, a sign that some riders may be using scooters to commute.

“People still need to get around,” says Laborde, Bird’s central states regional manager of governmental partnerships. “Scooters are naturally socially distant and a good complement to transit.”

Even before the coronavirus hit, the e-scooter industry faced economic challenges and questions about whether the business is sustainable, Schneider says. Scooter companies haven’t been profitable yet and have relied heavily on venture capital. But if policymakers agree that scooters have value as a transit option, local governments might consider subsidizing them, as with other forms of public transit, Schneider says.

Bauman strongly disagrees.

“Over my dead body will they be subsidized,” the longtime transit advocate says of e-scooters. “They’re not public transit. They’re public recreation.”

On the contrary, Bauman says it’s the e-scooter companies that should be paying the city.

“They’re too fast for sidewalks and too slow for streets,” Bauman says of the scooters. He believes they belong in bicycle lanes, which would have to be expanded citywide to accommodate them.

“That’s big money” that the city doesn’t have in the wake of the economic downturn triggered by the pandemic, Bauman says. “Those companies have money (from venture capital investors), and if they want to come into Milwaukee, they can pay for the infrastructure.”

If Bauman is unsympathetic to the scooter companies, he suggests it’s partly because Bird fouled the nest with its abrupt entrance.

“They’re arrogant (and) they don’t respect local government,” Bauman says.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.