MANKATO — The portion of Mankato where people will be allowed to ride rentable motorized scooters will greatly expand, at least temporarily, when e-scooters return in the spring.
Minnesota State University, working with the nationwide scooter-sharing company Bird, brought the electric scooters to Mankato starting Aug. 31 but limited their range to campus and a university-owned apartment complex near the Monks Avenue Kwik Trip. After two months, the scooters were gathered up for the winter, but they’ve proven popular enough that MSU and the Santa Monica-based company approached the city about allowing their use in a much broader 2.9-square-mile section of Mankato in 2022.
“The numbers were exceeding their expectations,” Associate Director of Public Safety Dan Schisel said of the ridership.
Between 30 and 60 scooters were made available by Bird each day this fall and averaged three to four daily rentals per scooter. That produced more than 11,000 rides through Oct. 19 and a combined 7,500 miles of travel.
Riders needed to download an app from Bird on their phones, provide credit or debit card information to cover the cost of their future rentals and review safety information. Once they signed up, they could rent the machines for $1 plus 39 cents for each minute of use.
Most users weren’t just trying one on a lark, according to statistics provided by Bird and MSU. Users averaged 5.1 rentals in the first 50 days the machines were available.
“It’s not just one-and-done, it’s continuing use,” Kurt Klinder, the city’s GIS coordinator, told the City Council Monday night.
While scooter-sharing services have been common in large urban areas for several years, the rental companies are rapidly expanding to smaller cities, particularly those with a substantial population of college students. Capable of traveling up to 15 mph, the scooters are left on sidewalks or in docking bays for use as an alternative — or a supplement — to cars, transit and walking.
At the end of each day, the GPS-tracked scooters are gathered up by Bird employees. After a night of battery-charging and maintenance, they’re returned to high-demand locations for the next day’s use.
The GPS-based system also allows the scooters’ speed to be controlled remotely and the machines to be deactivated if they are stolen or ridden in prohibited areas.
Initially, the restricted areas included MSU’s campus mall and other parts of the campus core. But the project was working well enough that the prohibited zones were replaced with “slow zones” where the scooters could still be ridden at speeds of up to 10 mph.
After the upcoming winter’s snow and ice depart next spring, the scooters will return to MSU and to a much wider area. Under a test project, the scooters will be allowed as far east as Victory Drive, as far south as the southern city limits, and as far west and north as the edge of the ravines.
Although Bird has the right to choose a more limited expansion, the zone will include many of the large student-housing apartments in the city, Klinder said.
“We are going to keep them out of the valley, the (narrower) sidewalks downtown,” he said.
The city permission for the expansion is contingent on a pledge from Bird to provide detailed information about how the scooters are being used in the broader community, including any mishaps, complaints or other problems.
“It allows them a chance to grow and succeed and us to see how well they succeed,” Klinder said.
The data will be helpful as city officials explore whether a citywide scooter program should be implemented in the future — using Bird or possibly another vendor.
The initial response to the scooters’ arrival hasn’t been without incident, according to a memo prepared for the council. In two cases, scooters were taken to Good Thunder and North Mankato by automobile, presumably by people who didn’t realize they would be made inoperable outside of the authorized zone near MSU. In two cases, attempts were made to dismantle scooters. One was found in a tree. Two accidents were reported. And MSU has had multiple reports of more than one rider on a scooter, which is against Bird’s rules.
But they’ve also been a big hit “outpacing larger campuses,” and Bird’s local representatives have been “very responsive,” according to the memo.
Representatives of Bird, MSU and the city met with the Highland Park Neighborhood Association last month about the proposed scooter expansion. Neighborhood residents in attendance expressed no reservations and plenty of enthusiasm, according to city officials.
“They were tickled pink,” Council member Mark Frost said.
As for the potential to expand the scooter zone to include the entire city, Schisel said a number of steps would be required, starting with examining the data from the planned expansion. An ordinance would also need to be written and public sentiment gauged.
“There’s much more community outreach that needs to be done,” Schisel said.
Asked about the potential timing of a decision to allow people to scoot from one end of Mankato to the other, he didn’t have a prediction: “I think the council will determine that for us.”