Sept. 27 2018 10:37 AM

Electric rental service blindsides Lansing region


City officials were caught off guard this month when electric scooters popped up on street corners around Lansing and East Lansing without notice. Now they have to figure out how to deal with them.

Representatives from Bird Rides Inc. didn’t notify a single city official when the Santa Monica, California, company dropped off a fleet of electric scooter rentals throughout the region. East Lansing came first; Lansing followed days later. And hundreds of residents have been zipping around for at least a week while officials look to enact rules guiding their operation.

“No one is saying that we don’t want these things in our city,” said Lansing Councilman Peter Spadafore. “We just want to make sure they’re operating legally, safely and with some sort of an agreement in place. They can expand options for getting around town. Those options would be great, but this has to be done correctly.”

Residents can use an application on their phone to track down and lease the nearest scooter. It costs $1 to rent the device and another 15 cents for every minute thereafter. But, depending on the trip, riders can encounter a much different set of local ordinances surrounding where they can — and cannot — be driven locally.

In Lansing, for instance, the scooters aren’t allowed on sidewalks within the downtown shopping district. Mayor Andy Schor said existing ordinances treat the devices like electric skateboards. There’s not a “hard and fast” regulatory structure downtown, but Spadafore is busy working on a more scooter-specific ordinance, he said.

“Right now they’re operating a business in the public right-of-way without permits and there are consequences to that,” Spadafore added. “I don’t know what they are, but those consequences do exist. I know they’re generating a lot of buzz right now, and I think that was the goal, but we need to provide some direction on this.”

East Lansing has taken a largely handsoff approach to enforcement. There, scooters can roll down just about every sidewalk or bike lane without risk of a ticket, according to officials at the East Lansing Police Department. City Council members have discussed the creation of a new ordinance but would rather test the waters first.

“I’m not averse to just seeing how things go,” added East Lansing Mayor Pro-Tem Erik Altmann. “We don’t want to spend enforcement resources when they aren’t having an effect on the safety and quality of life for our residents. We don’t want to enforce regulations that don’t help anyone. I’m not sure it’s a priority right now.”

Officials at Michigan State University, however, just want the two-wheeled nuisances off their campus.

“The company did not consult with MSU first and no permit paperwork has been filed with the university to allow them to legally operate on campus,” an MSU spokesperson said. “The company responded they were interested in discussing how to get into compliance, but thus far, no further discussions have taken place.”

A cease-and-desist notice sent to the company last week indicated the scooters cannot be driven on MSU sidewalks or bike lanes, nor parked anywhere on campus. Capt. Doug Monett with the MSU Police Department said 23 have since been impounded for obstructing traffic flow within various roadways and bicycle lanes.

Officials at Bird Rides. last week indicated they would provide an emailed statement to address concerns surrounding the company’s surprise-style marketing techniques.

No response was received by Tuesday and subsequent messages left with a company spokesperson have not been returned to City Pulse.

“If Bird can’t figure out that municipal officials don’t like surprises, I wonder what else they won’t be able to figure out,” Altmann said. “I just don’t think they’re thinking very hard about their operations over there.”

Representatives from Bird Rides and Lime, electric rental service also looking to get grounded in the greater Lansing region, met last week with East Lansing City Council members to address their business models. And Bird’s uncollaborative missteps locally might be enough to give rise to one of their largest competitors.

Schor and Altmann said Lime — which bills itself as a “micro-mobility” company — could also roll out an electric rental service before the winter months. And representatives there showed much more potential due to their willingness to seek permission before they decided to deploy their products out to local residents, they said.

Scott Mullen, director of expansion at Lime, labeled Bird’s recent rollout as a “rogue launch” that has done nothing but anger local officials. His company also wants a piece of the market, but they’ve asked for permission. He anticipates a “scaled-back” electric scooter rental trial run for the fall but nothing has yet been finalized.

“Cities have enough on their plate,” Mullen added. “They don’t move fast enough. We know that. But they’re working hard. When their agenda is derailed and they have to turn focus to something that was thrust upon them, that doesn’t help anyone. We’re trying to take the tension out of the situation.”

Lansing Council members — before they realized the scooters were parked on several street corners — said the introduction of the rental service would pose safety concerns. Council Vice President Jody Washington would have liked the opportunity to craft an ordinance surrounding their operation before they hit the streets.

And Council President Carol Wood said she’d ask Bird officials to retrieve their unannounced gifts to the city.

“There are some sections in the downtown area that might be wide enough for pedestrians and scooters, but there are other sections, especially with outdoor seating, where this could become really congested,” Wood said. “It’s not something that I would see as supportable.”

Officials in Ann Arbor said nearly 30 Bird scooters have been impounded for the same reasons earlier this month. They’re working on a licensing agreement that would establish rules for where the scooters can be driven and parked but they’ve yet to solidify any formal rules guiding their operation, a city spokesperson explained.

East Lansing Councilwoman Ruth Beier said she liked the idea of providing alternative transportation models but would like to see uniform rules that can guide their usage throughout the region.

“I think it would be better to have some sort of a regional solution than a patchwork of local ordinances from every municipality,” Altmann also suggested. “I think it would be beneficial to have some conversations together with East Lansing, Lansing, MSU” and the Capital Area Transportation Authority.

CNN Tech reported earlier this month that Bird was valued at $2 billion after a recent $300 million funding round. San Francisco and Denver and other cities have banned Bird outright until additional regulations can be enacted, but profit margins continue to soar, according to the report.

Beier said she was “sort of flattered” that Bird selected East Lansing for the launch, placing the city in the same ranks as other “cool, happening and up-and-coming cities” nationwide. But had the company tried a different approach, every local government could have had an opportunity to create rules before they hit the streets, she said.

“We’re not on the same page at all,” Beier explained. “We’re on totally different chapters right now.”

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage as officials address electric scooters in the region.