Bird, a Santa Monica-based company that operates its dockless electric scooter service in more than 100 markets around the world, alighted in the Twin Cities this past July without advance notice, catching city officials there off guard.
The stealthy launch was not lost on Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs, who said he now is working on a policy to ensure established rules of the road are in place well before Bird or its scooter competitor, Lime, arrive in the Twin Ports.
Hobbs noted that Bird has announced that it intends to franchise its service and suggested this could speed the company's entry into smaller markets across the country. With a large student population and its popularity as a tourist destination, Hobbs expects Duluth will prove an attractive host city for such a venture. He predicts dockless electric scooters are likely to roll into town by 2019 or 2020, at the latest.
In an email response to a query from the News Tribune, Mackenzie Long, a Bird spokesperson, confirmed the company's interest, writing: "Bird has no expansion plans to announce at this time, but we believe Duluth would be a great place to provide our affordable, environmentally-friendly transportation option. We hope to collaborate with city officials to bring Bird's service to the area in the future."
Hobbs said he views the pending introduction of electric scooters to the transportation mix in Duluth as "a great opportunity especially for that last mile of transportation, if done well."
"But I think some issues arose when those scooters just showed up in larger metropolitan areas," he observed.
St. Paul City Councilor Chris Tolbert said there initially was some confusion about where the scooters could operate, where they should be parked and who would be responsible for picking up stray scooters that impede public movement or intrude on private property.
Many of those issues have been addressed, with scooter traffic in St. Paul now restricted to streets and bicycle paths, not sidewalks. Scooters also must be parked upright with the stand down, often alongside a bike rack and out of the way of pedestrians.
In the event that scooters show up in places where they don't belong, Tolbert said: "We have a system set up where, when a complaint comes in, the responsible company is immediately notified, and if they're not picked up within two hours then city staff does it with a hefty fine, and then there's also cost recuperation for actually picking them up."
Hobbs has consulted with Tolbert and suggested Duluth could piggyback on much of the work St. Paul has done to develop effective policies to govern electric scooter use.
Tolbert praised Hobbs for his foresight, saying: "I think it's really wise of him and for the city of Duluth to be looking at this ahead of time and to start the planning process for proper licensing of these services."
Tolbert said St. Paul had begun that planning process in 2018, but Bird beat the city to the punch with its launch.
"They just popped up illegally," Tolbert said. "Bird has done that across the country."
But Tolbert said St. Paul seems to be working out the kinks.
"Once we got our rules and proper licensing in place, it ended up working fairly well," he said.
Bird and Lime pulled their scooters from service in the Twin Cities in November. During the winter off-season, Tolbert said a St. Paul work group is reviewing how the services worked and is considering possible improvements that could be made.
If you're wondering exactly how the Bird and Lime scooter networks work, the stand-atop vehicles are tracked via satellite using GPS technology. Customers can locate and unlock the nearest available scooter by using a smartphone app. Users pay a small start-up fee and incur additional incremental charges for each minute of use.
The two-wheeled motorized scooters are equipped with lights and can reach speeds of up to 15 mph.
When you reach your destination, you can use the app to indicate you've ended your trip, then leave the scooter to await its next user.
Hobbs said he hopes to bring forward an ordinance establishing a licensing system, as well as some operating rules, for dockless electric scooter services by April.
"The other thing that's appealing about having these in Duluth or encouraging them is the opportunity to dispel the perception that Duluth is behind the times. Instead, we're a city that's being proactive and that's saying here are the rules," he said.
Hobbs suggested that adopting a policy also could send a positive signal to prospective service providers.
"Even if they're not thinking about us right now. It sends the message that we've thought about them, and this is a market that is ready to have these services," he said.