Members of the Missoula City Council zoomed around a downtown block on Wednesday on electric scooters made by the San Francisco company Lime, a venture capital-backed startup that's famous for their shared, dockless bike and e-scooter rentals.
"I can definitely see the ‘joy’ aspect,” said council member Heidi West as she took off her helmet while fellow council member Michelle Cares nodded in agreement. “It’s fun.”
Jonathan Hopkins, the director of strategic development in the Northwest area for Lime, was in town to give the city council information about how the company works in other cities like Spokane, Boise and Ogden, Utah, which he said are similar markets to Missoula. He told the city council that taking a taxi is convenient, but e-scooters bring "joy" to the rider.
The company is interested in looking at Missoula as a potential new city to operate its e-scooters and bikes, but Hopkins said there are no firm plans yet. Meanwhile, the Missoula City Council is looking at updating regulations regarding shared mobility devices and scooter sharing programs and will discuss the issue at the Monday public hearing on June 17 at 7 p.m. in council chambers at 140 W. Pine St.
Wednesday, council members asked Hopkins questions on everything from whether fines would be implemented on people who misuse the scooters to how much of a fee the city should charge for use of shared right-of-way.
Essentially, Lime works by placing e-scooters and bikes in public spaces. Customers can sign in using the Lime app on their smartphone and pay a fee to unlock the scooter and ride it to where they want to go, then drop it off anywhere it's allowed like the tree or bench areas on a public sidewalk. Customers typically pay about 15 to 25 cents per minute to ride the devices, and they have a speed limit of about 15 mph. Hopkins said the company has a Lime Access program that makes the devices 50% to 60% cheaper for low-income people who are on federal subsidy programs such as food stamps or housing vouchers.
His pitch to the council was that e-scooters reduce traffic congestion and pollution while giving people more mobility options and increasing use of public transit.
“We’re trying to solve congestion and pollution problems,” he said. “(Scooters) take up less space and pollute less (than cars).”
Hopkins mentioned several times that Lime’s goal is to “work collaboratively” with transit agencies and any city they operate in to find ways to make the program successful, safe and free of problems.
“We launched in Spokane on May 13, and Spokane is an illustration of what community collaboration can do,” he said. “(The scooters) have propelled people to discover parts outside of downtown they didn’t know about.”
According to Lime statistics, 50% of users make less than the average income in the U.S., 33% of riders are female, and 20% of users say their last trip was to connect to public transit.
“If public transit ridership goes up, that is a win for the community,” Hopkins said.
About 30% of Lime riders say they would have used a Lyft or Uber if an e-scooter or e-bike hadn’t been available, Hopkins added. The company operates in 100 cities, and he said Ogden, Utah, has a similar population to Missoula, although it’s surrounded by a larger metro area. In cities with snowy winters, Lime devices are often shut down for long periods at a time and whenever there is a storm warning.
The devices are located by customers using GPS, which is also how the company keeps track of where they are. The company pays people to collect, charge and distribute the devices, and often needs large warehouses for storage, charging and repairs.
Hopkins said in Auckland, New Zealand, downtown business owners reported more sales because people who were avoiding commercial districts because of a lack of parking could now get there in a fun, affordable mode.
An Associated Press count recently found that there have been 11 electric scooter rider deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of 2018, with nine victims on rented scooters. In 2018 in the U.S., riders took 38.5 million trips on rentable scooters, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Hopkins said that although there were instances in the past where cities like San Diego were inundated with too many of the scooters, companies are being more strategic and scaling back their initial numbers when they enter new markets.
“If scooters are here in Missoula, initially you would probably see around 1,000 rides a day and 30% of the people would have been driving,” Hopkins told the city council. “It would be fairly incidental at first. The greatest mass demand would be downtown or on the university campus or other commercial centers.”
Hopkins compared the learning curve of adapting to scooters to when automobiles were first introduced to Missoula.
“Scooters to Montanans are just like what the Model A would have been to Missoulians in 1908,” he said. When bicycles were first introduced to cities, he said, newspapers ran headlines saying they would be “knocking down old ladies and children on the sidewalks.”
He said cities have invested lots of resources, such as public works department staff and parking meters and street striping, to making sure car drivers know where to go and where to park. The same resources can be put into giving people information about e-scooters.
“There needs to be attention given to helping people know what the norms are,” he said.
Council member Cares said she was concerned that fines would be implemented on low-income people who might use the devices in the wrong way.
“I don’t want to see them end up in jail,” she said.
Hopkins reassured her that based on the company’s history, there would be little chance that any fines would be utilized in at least the first year if Lime were to operate in Missoula.
Council president Bryan von Lossberg said he’s heard the e-scooters have “worked great” in some communities but have been a “disaster” in others.
“We want to have a really good partnership with the city and communicate problem areas,” Hopkins said.
It often takes people time to adapt to new things, he said, saying communities get used to the presence of e-scooters if they are implemented in a thoughtful way.
Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle/pedestrian program manager, said San Diego is generally considered the “poster child” of community backlash against the devices because the city didn’t regulate them much, if at all, and too many were introduced.
“What we are proposing is that there would be a use fee,” he said, referring to an extra fee charged by the city that would be passed on to customers. “Somewhere in the range of 5 to 10 cents per use. That incentivizes both the company to get more uses and cities to help companies be more successful.”
Hopkins was coy about his company's plans, but said he wouldn't be surprised if an e-scooter company started operations in Missoula in the near future. But he also said more studies have to be done to see whether it would work here.
"(Lime is) interested enough to drive (me) here from Boise," he explained, grinning.