Scooters Spark Debate—and Questions—in Montpelier

Bird scooters wait for riders on State Street By Julio’s. Photo by Tom Brown

On October 18, 100 electric scooters by Bird went online in Montpelier and were placed in “nests” around the city in an experiment to offer locals a new mode of transit and take one more step toward net-zero goals, in the hopes that people will leave their cars at home more often—and, of course, to experience a bit of fun.

As with anything new in Montpelier, the scooters ignited intense debate, particularly on Front Porch Forum, over the fitness and safety of the program for the city, and a number of good questions have been raised. With the input of Police Chief Anthony Facos, Mayor Anne Watson, and City Councilor Conor Casey, The Bridge has endeavored to answers these and some of our own questions.

What motivated the idea?

The idea of bringing the scooters to Montpelier began with a trip to Detroit taken by a friend of City Councilor Conor Casey. “He planted the idea in my head. He said he had used the scooters to get around without the need to rent a car and talked about the environmental benefits about it and using it as a practical way to get around the city.”

How and why was the pilot program approved?

Casey brought the idea to the city council, because it seemed to tick the boxes of three leading goals of the city: reducing the carbon footprint toward net-zero goals, creating a more affordable town, and reducing traffic and parking congestion. At that point, Watson, Casey, and Councilor Jack McCullough held a meeting with a representative from Bird and sought input from Facos regarding safety issues. After consultation, the pilot program was approved by the council in a 6-0 vote.

How long will the pilot program last?

The scooters will be in town for 60 days and then will be removed for the winter. If the program continues, it would be on a seasonal basis, returning in the spring after the snow melts.

Does the city make any money from it?

The city gets $1 a day per scooter—used or not—which translates to $700 per week and $3,000 per month. Revenue is channeled directly to the general fund.

Why now?

With winter darkening the skies, some people have questioned the timing of program, and Mayor Watson did prefer to wait until after the snow melted, stating, “I’m worried about some legal and ordinance issues.”  Casey and other council members felt it was better to do it now. “Given how much public input we wanted in this process and how many things we need to iron out,” he explains, “I thought having the Birds on the ground several months in the meantime to catch a breath, talk to people, and look at whether it was a good fit after there was the chance to try them out a bit.”

What are the safety concerns?

The safety of the scooters is the main concern for Chief Facos. “I’m just here to make sure that if they are here to stay, do we have the appropriate regulatory process and safeguards in place? I am really concerned that people are going to ride them inappropriately; they’re going to be on the sidewalks where they are not supposed to be. There’s a definite fear of pedestrians and the elderly population that they might get hit by one of these. Also, it’s a small wheel, so it’s very prone, if you hit an obstacle or obstruction, to crashing these things. They don’t track as straight as a bicycle, so there’s a learning curve of operator skill.”

Have there been any incidents of crashes or injuries so far?

As of the publishing date, no injuries or accidents have been reported to the police, although there have been four “police-documented incidents,” but no tickets issued.

Who is liable if there is an injury?

As part of the contract with Bird, the city is indemnified against any legal action, should someone get hurt. Whether a lawsuit would be directed at the rider or the company remains an open question, and there have indeed been several directed at the company in other parts of the country. The company assumes liability, according to Casey.

What are the rules?

According to Bird’s policies, riders must be 18 years old, ride in the streets, and leave the scooters out of the way of traffic when finished. Because the scooter motors are under 50cc, a helmet is not required but is strongly recommended by all those involved. In Montpelier, the scooters are welcome on the bike path, just as is an e-bike, but definitely not allowed on sidewalks.

How are rules enforced?

Enforcement of the rules largely falls to the police, although Facos stresses that it’s currently more about education rather than ticketing or reprimanding violators. The hope is that once people become familiar with the rules and system, there will be little reason to do so. “What I’ve directed our staff to do is be very proactive and educational in response right now. If you see somebody who’s riding on the sidewalk, instead of just writing tickets, let’s do what we can to educate. Just like we do with bicyclists.”

Casey notes some community enforcement he witnessed. “I was heartened to see somebody riding a scooter without a helmet, and somebody on the other side of the street yelled, ‘Hey, they’re going to take these away from us if you don’t play by the rules.’”

How many people have used Bird scooters so far?

As of October 25, Bird has registered 946 rides taken by 156 unique riders, totaling more than 1,000 miles traveled. Casey notes that that translates into a reduction of 941 lbs of carbon dioxide if those miles were traveled in a car.

Who picks up and organizes the scooters?

Early in the morning, from 4 to 7 am, five “chargers” pick up the scooters, bring them home to recharge them, and then redeposit them in “nests” at various points around the city. According to one post on Front Porch Forum, this has led to some competition among the chargers. “There are people from all over the area (not just Montpelierites) in town at 9 pm flooding our streets attempting to pick up the scooters whose value each was around $11. It was like a battleground; a dirty red Chevrolet Silverado almost hit my vehicle doing an illegal U-turn at the State-Main intersection.”

The Bridge reached out to Bird to confirm fees and policies regarding collection but did not get a clear response.

What is the community response?

It’s difficult to gauge the true response of the public, becauses those against them are more likely to share that opinion with police, city officials, and, of course, Front Porch Forum, where negative (and sometimes outright hostile) comments outnumber positive ones about 60 percent to 40 percent.

Casey does not consider the Forum as representative of the overall response, noting his own feedback is about 75 percent positive. “I notice the majority of negative comments are by people who haven’t tried the scooters,” adding, “I would argue if you dropped 100 bicycles in town, and no one had ever used a bicycle, you’d probably have a similar reaction.”

For Watson, response from the public has been mostly negative. “I heard from one dear older friend who said she’s afraid to walk down the street,” she recalls, “because she can’t afford to fall and break her hip. I’ve also heard some thoughtful commentary from friends of mine who were reluctant to give up so much visual space on our landscape to a corporation.”

If the scooters return in the spring, what changes could be made?

During the evaluation and feedback process that would take place throughout the winter, a number of questions will be discussed, starting with the size of the fleet. “Maybe we don’t need 100 on the ground,” Casey says. “We might have too many.” He also suggests establishing a community board as part of the regular education and communication about scooter use.

For Facos, establishing what the scooters are exactly from a regulatory point of view would help greatly. “There needs to be clear definition of what these devices are as opposed to trying to twist old definitions, for example a motorcycle or moped, so it encompasses a scooter,” he explains. “From there we can determine as a state how these should be regulated.”

Another question is if an operating or vending license should be required, which is not the case at the moment in Vermont. For Casey, he prefers not. “I still stick with freedom, like a bike.” On that point, Watson agrees. “I don’t think licensing the scooters themselves will do much,” but she adds,  “I would like to see helmets be required, not just suggested. I’d like to see the police start giving out tickets to people using them on the sidewalks. Mostly, though, I’ll be advocating that we not renew our contract with them.”

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