Hundreds of electric scooters could be coming to Des Moines
The good: a new breed of electric scooter is easy to obtain, via an app, and can be dropped anywhere. The bad: streets are littered with stray scooters and pedestrians are upset. Jefferson Graham reports from Santa Monica USA TODAY
Des Moines is preparing for the inevitable: the arrival of hundreds of electric scooters.
Private e-scooter sharing companies — active in cities and college campuses around the globe — have looked at launching the service in Des Moines.
The scooters, powered by small electric motors, can be rented using a smartphone app. They are part of a growing "micro-mobility" industry, and like their bike-share counterpart, the scooters tend to be popular among downtown riders.
Now, officials in the Des Moines metro are moving to craft rules for the devices before they hit the streets in central Iowa.
“There’s nothing imminent other than all the conversations and feedback that are starting to happen,” said Amanda Wanke, Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority’s chief external affairs officer. “There will have to be a lot of conversations, especially at the city levels.”
DART, the metro’s public transportation provider, wants to work with member cities to establish criteria for scooter vendors, vet companies and help determine where their scooters might be deployed.
“It makes sense for DART to be an adviser,” said Luis Montoya, DART’s planning and development director.
However, each city will make the final decision on how it wants to regulate the devices.
What are they?
If you’ve traveled to any major city in the past two years, there's a chance you've seen them.
Smaller than a moped, they resemble a children's foot-powered scooter, only with a small motor attached to the rear wheel. Users stand and use handlebar controls to regulate speed and braking.
The scooters can reach speeds up to 15 mph and travel around 15 to 20 miles on a single charge.
Last year, riders logged 38.5 million trips on e-scooters, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Sharing services started popping up on the West Coast in 2017 and more recently spread to the Midwest.
The Twin Cities launched pilot programs last year and expanded them in 2019. The cities allow up to 2,450 between them.
“What we learned in the pilot program last year is that people like them, and they were effective at accomplishing our transportation goals for the city," Reuben Collins, a St. Paul transportation planner and engineer, told Twin Cities Business.
The scooters have drawn praise and criticism in Indianapolis, Indiana, where Bird and Lime, two of the country's largest scooter services, launched last summer. Spin, a company owned by Ford, and Lyft, known for its ride-hailing services, opened there this year.
Each company pays the city a $15,000 fee to operate and $1 per device each day. Indianapolis allows each company to offer up to 1,000 scooters.
Scooters have moved into many larger cities and rules on using them vary. Here are the the DOs and DON'Ts of Scooter riding in the Milwaukee area. Wochit
Does Des Moines want them?
“That’s a really good question,” said Josh Mandelbaum, a Des Moines councilman.
The issue has not been discussed by the council, but an introductory workshop is planned for later this month.
“We have inquired, but I can’t say we’ve had very deep conversations about this. It has not gone much further than that,” said Nico Probst, director of Midwest government relations for Lime.
Mike Armstrong, director of planning and communications for the Street Collective, said the scooters could encourage central Iowans to get outside and leave their cars behind, freeing up more space on the city's roads.
They also could benefit people who would take public transportation, but don't live near a bus stop, he said.
“This can play that connecting role,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s a great area for it.”
He said the scooters could complement Des Moines' bicycle-sharing program, BCycle, if they're implemented "thoughtfully." So far this year, Des Moines cyclists have logged more than 2,500 miles.
The scooters have received the backing of the Indianapolis public transit system, which saw bus ridership and its electric car-sharing use increase after they hit city streets.
"I think these mobility options can absolutely work together," Lauren Day, IndyGo's director of public relations, told the Indy Star. “We find that there are often scooters scattered around our stations, so we know that people are taking scooters the first mile to our stations and then using BlueIndy cars to do their longer-distance travel plans.”
While popular among riders, the scooters have critics.
Riders who fall can hurt themselves, suffering concussions or breaking bones.
Indianapolis Emergency Medical Services transported 113 patients for scooter-related injuries from September 2018 through May 2019. Fifty-one percent of the injured riders admitted to consuming alcohol.
In October, Indianapolis police made their first arrest on suspicion of operating a scooter while intoxicated, when police say a 21-year-old ran a red light on a Lime scooter.
A Nashville, Tennessee, man died in a scooter-related crash in May. And after four scooter deaths in her city, Atlanta’s mayor banned nighttime scooter rides there.
Companies like Bird and Lime encourage riders to wear helmets and obey traffic laws, which often include not riding on sidewalks.
All five Midwest cities reviewed by the Register — Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Omaha — ban riding scooters on sidewalks.
Probst said Lime encourages riders to wear helmets and ride either in a bicycle lane or near a road's shoulder, not on the sidewalk. If a city tells the company that it's seeing a high number of sidewalk riders, Lime can add a pop-up message to its app.
Along with safety, scooters cluttering sidewalks is a chief concern among DART board members.
Tom Gayman, an Urbandale councilman and chair of the commission, said he saw scooters crowding paths around shopping districts when he was in Kansas City recently. He also didn’t see any riders wearing helmets.
“It’s out of control,” he said.
Mandelbaum worries the scooters could make Des Moines less accessible.
“There are a lot of places that have had accessibility issues because scooters end up littering the sidewalks and make it really difficult for others” to get around, he said.
Armstrong said he had the opposite experience in Portland, Oregon. Scooters weren’t cluttering sidewalks there, he said.
Cities that have brought on scooters without planning first have found themselves in the most trouble, said Armstrong, who is part of a committee that is exploring the issue.
If scooters do come to Des Moines, they’d likely arrive first on a trial basis, he said, probably in the downtown area.
What’s it like in Cedar Rapids?
Des Moines and its suburbs aren’t vying to be Iowa’s first e-scooter area. Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second-largest city, launched a 30-scooter pilot program on Friday.
According to a city news release, the scooters are available downtown, in the NewBo and Czech Village districts, and on the Coe College and Mount Mercy University campuses.
VeoRide, based in Chicago, is providing the scooters, adding them to its stable of electric bicycles already available in Cedar Rapids. The scooters cost $1 to unlock with the smartphone app and then 15 cents per minute.
While the scooters can be abandoned almost anywhere, the city wants riders to park them at the bicycle-sharing stations or in designated, painted parking areas. Users are prohibited from riding on sidewalks downtown and have to use a bicycle lane when one’s available.
Riders there are “strongly encouraged” to wear helmets.
Austin Cannon covers the city of Des Moines for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8398.
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