It’s a Bird! A Bike! A Scooter! New Transit Options Land in Milwaukee

[Update 6/28/18 5:24 p.m.]

Less than 24 hours after Bird rolled out a fleet of 100 motorized scooters in downtown Milwaukee that people can rent using Bird’s smartphone app, Milwaukee Deputy City Attorney Adam Stephens wrote the company a letter asking Bird to “immediately remove all of the motorized scooters held out for rent on city sidewalks and streets,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Stephens wrote in the letter that Bird’s electronic scooters may not lawfully be operated on public streets and walkways, and anyone who rides one of the scooters could face a fine of nearly $100, according to the newspaper.

[Story originally published 6/27/18 3:46 p.m.]

More transit options are coming to Milwaukee. Controversy might follow.

Bird, a mobile app-based service allowing people to rent electric scooters that don’t need to be docked after reaching one’s destination, on Wednesday launched a fleet of about 100 scooters in Milwaukee, says Nicholas Samonas, a spokesman for the company.

The fleet will be initially concentrated around the city’s Third Ward neighborhood, Samonas says. He says that as ridership increases, Bird plans to expand its local fleet.

Bird, which is headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, and has raised about $265 million from investors, isn’t the only scooter-sharing service that’s been attempting to make inroads in Milwaukee.

In April, Silicon Valley-based LimeBike, which offers dock-free bike and electric scooter rentals in dozens of cities in the U.S. and Europe, held an event in Milwaukee during which the company explained how its service works and let attendees take test rides. The company is expanding rapidly to new locales, aided by $382 million in venture capital.

The event, as well as subsequent local news coverage of LimeBike, helped educate more Milwaukee residents about the service. Still, it’s uncertain whether LimeBike will launch its service in Milwaukee, says Matt Cordio, co-founder of Startup Milwaukee. He attended the event in April, at which the above photo was taken, and keeps a close eye on trends in mobility technology.

Cordio says that in his view, Milwaukee should welcome both LimeBike and Bird with open arms.

“We think both of them are going to be great additions to the city,” he says. Dock-free vehicle rental services could represent an alternative to car-based transportation options like Uber, Lyft, and traditional taxicabs for people in Milwaukee who want to take short trips, Cordio says.

Bird electric scooters. Image courtesy of Nicholas Samonas.

But if the experiences of other cities are any signal, the arrival of dock-less transit options might ruffle some feathers in Milwaukee. These companies often launch fleets of bikes and scooters in new geographies without giving municipal governments much (or any) notice. Some cities have responded with rules limiting the companies’ operations, in an attempt to avoid clogged sidewalks. Dock-less bike services also compete with shared bike programs that some cities have backed.

If LimeBike ends up launching in Milwaukee, it will compete with Bublr Bikes, a nonprofit bike-sharing program that serves the greater Milwaukee area. The program has not received any direct funding from the city of Milwaukee or other municipalities, says Sally Sheperdson, executive director of Bublr Bikes. However, Milwaukee and other municipalities in the area did receive federal funding, which they used to purchase bikes and docking stations, she says in an e-mail. [A previous version of this paragraph incorrectly stated that Bublr Bikes has received direct funding from the city of Milwaukee. We regret the error.]

Riders of Bublr Bikes are required to pick up and return the bikes at designated stations located throughout the area. Cordio argues that because Bird and LimeBike vehicles don’t need to be docked in between rides, they’re more likely to serve parts of Milwaukee that don’t have a Bublr station.

“Bublr Bikes doesn’t serve the areas of the city that need transportation the most,” Cordio says. He believes government funding should support “bike infrastructure, not delivering a [bike-sharing] service, especially when there are well-funded companies that are providing probably a superior experience and solution to that of a dock bike-share program.”

Juli Kaufmann, who is part of Bublr’s team, responded to a similar critique Cordio made earlier this month on Twitter. Kaufmann tweeted: “Bublr is a local nonprofit with a sustainable financial model. It is a reliable, well-maintained, coordinated, year-round element of our multi-modal transportation system and committed to access for all.”

People in cities where LimeBike and Bird operate who want to start using one of the services first download a mobile app that shows a map with the nearest bikes or scooters available for rental. After a user enters personal and credit card information, she uses the app to unlock her desired vehicle, then gets moving. Both Bird and LimeBike encourage riders to park their vehicles near bike racks, and to avoid stationing them where they block public pathways. After reaching one’s destination, the rider uses her smartphone to lock the bike or scooter.

Samonas, the spokesman for Bird, says the company closely monitors the supply of—and demand for—its vehicles in a particular city. Under Bird’s “Save our Sidewalks” pledge, the company only deploys more scooters when every scooter in circulation is being ridden at least three times per day, on average. It also says it will “remove unutilized vehicles,” without specifying the exact criteria for taking scooters off the streets.

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