Those scooters you either love or hate are back, but for how long?
Consider it a sign of post-vax normalcy: Dockless electric scooters have returned to Milwaukee, along with a very familiar public debate about their practicality. If you've spent much time Downtown, you've probably seen a few of the scooters parked inconveniently on the sidewalk -- and if you've spent any time on neighborhood Facebook groups, you've almost certainly seen some posts complaining about them or, just as often, mocking people who complain about them.
Under a new pilot program that began June 1, the electric scooter companies Bird, Lime and Spin are each allowed to operate 1,000 scooters in Milwaukee. This is the city's second pilot program studying the scooters, following one in 2019 (the scooters had been set to return in 2020, but didn't because of the pandemic).
But while the city is still soliciting feedback about the scooters, this time around the fate of the scooters is a lot less uncertain. Milwaukee's 2019 pilot program study found few major problems with the scooters, including few instances of crashes or injuries, and a survey reported that more residents approve of them than not.
"The high ridership demonstrates latent demand for new transportation options, and 58.4% of survey respondents cited 'more transportation options in Milwaukee' as an important or very important benefit of dockless scooters," according to that study. "Smaller, electric, shared vehicles also have the potential to assist in achieving other City goals around health, equity, safer streets, and climate change."
In short: Love them or hate them, these scooters are probably here to stay.
Aiming for more equitable distribution
Bird scooters first appeared in Milwaukee in 2018, without permission from the city. The city sued Bird, arguing that electric scooters were illegal on city streets under state law, then reached an agreement that called for the company to bring the scooters back after a statewide regulatory framework had been adopted.
In 2019, Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill regulating electric scooters on Wisconsin roads and sidewalks, paving the way for their return to Milwaukee streets. Under the state measure, scooters must weigh under 100 pounds and adhere to a 15 mph speed limit. Local governments have the power to restrict rentals and prohibit use on streets with speed limits above 25 mph. Scooters must also comply with certain lighting and braking requirements.
Milwaukee's 2021 scooter pilot program will be focused less on the feasibility of dockless scooters than on ways to improve their usage and distribution. The city has identified reducing sidewalk riding as a top concern, as well as more equitably distributing the scooters throughout the city. If distributed properly, dockless scooters could help connect parts of the city under-served by public transportation to jobs and attractions, but in 2019 the scooters were inordinately placed in Downtown. Bird, Lime and Spin are required to better disperse their scooters under this year's requirements.
The city will also be monitoring how Covid-19 has changed people's travel patterns.
The study is unlikely to address one of the most common online complaints about the scooters, the tendency of parked scooters to end up where they don't belong and block public walkways. But according to respondents in the 2019 pilot program survey, the advantage of cheap and abundant transportation outweigh the inconvenience.
And even residents who love to complain about the scooters have to admit: After a year of contentious debate over matters of literal life and death, such as mask wearing and vaccines, it's refreshing to be arguing about something as relatively trivial as scooters again.