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Scooters halted in Indy for now; cities address sudden issue

July 13, 2018

Scooter rental service Bird has changed its mind about maintaining operations in Indianapolis while it waits for city officials to come up with regulations.

Bird began removing scooters from the city Wednesday and expressed hope that it could return to business as soon as next week. City-County Council members are expected to vote on an ordinance regulating scooter-rental services on Monday.

Scooter usage became a hot-button topic last month when two California-based rent-by-the-minute dockless scooter services dropped off hundreds of the rechargeable vehicles near sidewalks, along the Cultural Trail downtown and in other areas.

Santa Monica-based Bird arrived in Indianapolis on June 15 when it deployed dozens of electric scooters downtown, in Irvington and along Massachusetts Avenue. Eight days later, San Mateo-based Lime (formerly LimeBike) began offering its scooters in Indianapolis.

Users activate and rent the scooters through a mobile phone application. Rates are $1 per ride plus 15 cents per minute.

On June 19, the city’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services, formerly code enforcement, asked Bird to halt its service for 30 days while the city worked out a regulatory scheme for scooter sharing. It sent a similar request to Lime on July 2, asking it to cease operations until July 16.

Lime halted operations July 5, citing the city's request, but Bird told IBJ on July 6 that it wanted to avoid interruption in its service while regulations were being decided.

Bird officials apparently changed their minds this week.

“We are glad to be working with Indianapolis to build a framework that permits affordable transportation options that help the city reach its goals of getting cars off the road and reducing emissions,” a Bird spokesman said Thursday in an email. “While this work is under way, we have agreed to remove our scooters from the streets of Indianapolis and started removing vehicles on Wednesday, 7/11. We hope the ordinance and its resulting permit process is completed as soon as possible so we can get back to helping people easily get around Indianapolis.”

The company declined to answer questions about the decision.

Lime Director of Strategic Development Maggie Gendron told IBJ that her company halted operations because she hoped the city would look favorably on the company’s decision to comply with the city’s request.

Some City-County Council officials had expressed displeasure with the scooter companies when they initially declined to honor the city’s request.

Similar situations are playing out across the country — some leading to litigation between cities and the scooter-rental businesses.

Today, Milwaukee will ask a judge to order Bird to remove its scooters from the city. It will be the first time a complaint against Bird will be argued in court, potentially providing the first judicial opinion for the cities scrambling to figure out how to deal with the startups.

Milwaukee sued after sending Bird a cease-and-desist letter on June 28, a day after 100 scooters arrived “in a similar, overnight, surprise fashion” other places have experienced, according to the lawsuit. Bird contends its scooters are legal for street use, just like bicycles and other “mobility devices.” It says the company wants to work with Milwaukee “to create and enforce common sense rules encouraging the safe use” of the scooters that residents “have begun to adopt enthusiastically.”

Bird was founded by Travis VanderZanden, a former top executive at Uber and Lyft. The clashes over the scooters are reminiscent of the early days of those ridesharing companies, which launched in places with no regulatory framework before building public support and triggering a flurry of legislative activity that ultimately legitimized their businesses.

“It’s a very defiant position they’re taking as if laws don’t matter, they don’t apply to us, we’re going to do what we please, when we please,” said Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman.

Nashville, Tennessee, sued last month before impounding all of Bird’s scooters. The city since dropped its lawsuit and is working on regulations for the scooters. In San Francisco, the city banned the scooters on June 4, requiring Bird and other companies to apply for permits before returning.

The scooters can go up to 15 mph. Picking one up is a simple process. The Bird app shows where they’re available. Riders, who must scan in their driver’s license, unlock one by scanning a bar code for an initial charge of $1. It then costs 15 cents a minute to ride one. Once done, riders take a picture of where they left the scooter to make sure it’s properly parked. Bird picks up the scooters each night and inspects them before putting them back the next day.

“It’s really fun, super fast,” said Kirby Bridges, a 28-year-old Milwaukee resident who was taking one of her first rides downtown Wednesday. “But I can also see how it can potentially be really pretty dangerous so I totally understand why there would be a lawsuit.”

Although the app advises customers not to ride on sidewalks, that hasn’t stopped them, and cities have complained the scooters are sometimes left in places where they obstruct sidewalks. In Denver, for example, public works officials removed Bird scooters because they were taking up space on public rights of way, said Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the agency. Denver also ordered LimeBike, which is in 30 cities, to cease operations until regulations are in place.

In Milwaukee, Bauman said he’s willing to consider regulations for the scooters if Wisconsin law is changed so they can be deemed legal vehicles that can then be registered. But he said they should be used only on streets, not sidewalks.

Riders “can take their chances with dump trucks and cement trucks and buses and street cars and motor vehicles of all sorts. Have at it,” he said.

Other places have been more welcoming to the scooter companies. In Minneapolis, officials moved to regulate the scooters after they appeared, with the City Council giving initial approval this week to an ordinance to license them and establish parking rules. Memphis, Tennessee, last month set up an agreement with Bird that includes parking regulations

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