NEW ULM — When more than 70 Bird electric scooters were placed around New Ulm a couple of weeks ago, City Manager Chris Dalton was one of the first to use them.
“They’re awesome. I’m originally from California so I’m accustomed to them. It’s nice to not have to get your car and just take them to a restaurant or wherever.”
New Ulm became one of the few smaller cities to get in on the e-scooter craze. The scooters are parked all around the city and people who’ve signed up can grab one, drive it where they want and leave it at their destination, being charged a certain amount per minute for its use.
“Bird reached out to us. They’re doing a small cities program where they pick a certain number of small cities each year and we were fortunate enough that they wanted to be here in New Ulm,” Dalton said.
The scooters appear to be a hit, with 1,100 rides taken in just over the first week.
A user activates the scooter using the phone app by scanning a QR code on the scooter. The rider must also have a credit card to activate the scooter. The cost is $1 to activate the e-scooter and 39 cents for each minute of use.
While a number of companies have been offering the rental scooters in larger cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul for a few years, the services are spreading to more outstate communities.
Mankato is preparing an ordinance and getting community feedback as it decides if and how to move ahead with a scooter service. Minnesota State University is to get e-scooters by the start of the fall semester.
Some of the e-scooter services require people to park the scooters at docking stations around a community, while others, including Bird, let people take and leave them from anywhere in the city.
Dalton said Bird placed the scooters throughout the city, including downtown, at Martin Luther College, at parks and at other high-use areas. The scooters are shut down from midnight to 4 a.m. daily and a Bird employee tracks down scooters that need to be recharged or retrieved from far-flung areas where the next riders may not easily find them.
“For the most part, people are pretty respectful of where they leave them. They put them up on the kickstand out of the way, they’re not just laying them down in the middle of the sidewalk,” Dalton said.
While there is a diversity of opinions and potential issues with scooter rentals among cities looking at them, Dalton thinks the important thing is for a community to pick a company with a good reputation, have a solid written contract with them and have a local ordinance that lays out basic rules for use.
“The City Council was supportive of them; they just wanted to have the right rules in place. The community has been pretty supportive.”
New Ulm’s ordinance is fairly broad, allowing use anywhere in town. Technically, as with bicycles, the scooters aren’t to be driven on sidewalks. The scooters also can be used on paved bike trails in New Ulm, although the ordinance requires Bird to automatically limit the scooters to 12 mph when they’re on bike trails, as opposed to their top speed of 15 mph elsewhere in town.
Dalton said the scooters are an environmentally friendly mode of transportation that give people, including those who don’t own a car, an opportunity to get around.
“They’re good for communities to have. It’s just a question of getting a good operator that picks them up and puts them where they need to be every day.”
Mankato, MSU move ahead
David Cowan, facilities services director at MSU, said a committee last week picked a vendor to provide e-scooter service on campus, although he can’t name it until the contract is signed.
He hopes the scooters will be in place by the start of fall semester.
While there will be no specified docking stations, MSU has set up limits on where the scooters can be used and parked.
“We’re going to have restricted zones where they can’t park them. It’s not unlike our bicycle approach. We have over 1,000 bicycles on campus during a good year and have bike racks all over campus based on where they’re needed.”
Students won’t be able to drive the scooters on the MSU mall. There will be some streets around campus to drive on and they can use the sidewalks.
“We have wide sidewalks, but we’ll try to keep them out of areas where pedestrians and runners frequent. We have a lot of runners,” Cowan said.
“That will be the trick, to try to keep scooter customers away from runners, pedestrians and vehicles. It’ll be interesting to see how it all works out.”
Unlike Dalton, who couldn’t wait to try the scooters, Cowan, in his early 70s, said he won’t be hopping on one. “I tried skateboarding and nearly broke my leg.”
Mankato has been approached by Bird and by White Fox Scooters to set up a service in the city.
Dan Schisel, associate director of the Mankato Department of Public Safety, is on a committee looking at e-scooters. While the City Council hasn’t committed to anything, it has directed the committee to move ahead.
“We’re putting together an ordinance that we will present to the council and doing the community outreach and engagement,” Schisel said.
He said there are strong supporters of the idea. “Part of the (city’s) strategic plan has micromobility and if you look long term, this kind of falls into that — providing a means of transportation for those who don’t always have it.”
But he said the committee also has heard from individuals and groups with concerns, including those who represent people with disabilities who want to ensure the blind, deaf or those with other disabilities aren’t endangered by the silent electric scooters.
In North Mankato, City Administrator John Harrenstein said that so far no scooter companies have contacted them about providing services. He said he is supportive of the concept, noting he and Councilman Jim Whitlock used the scooters while attending a League of Cities conference in Los Angeles.
But Harrenstein said he doesn’t have a clear sense of where the council is on the issue.
The council recently rejected a request by some residents to allow golf carts on city streets, citing a variety of concerns, including how they’d move between lower and upper North Mankato, which is connected only by heavily traveled Lookout Drive, Lee Boulevard or Highway 14.