MANKATO — Rentable electric scooters will be zipping around the Minnesota State University campus and nearby neighborhoods later this summer, according to Mankato city officials. The City Council wants to explore the possibility of expanding scooter-sharing services to other parts of Mankato as well.
“I’m sure it will be on campus before the fall semester starts,” said Dan Schisel, an associate director in the Department of Public Safety, who’s been working with university officials on their plans.
Scooter-sharing services have become common in many large urban areas, but the rental companies are now showing interest in smaller cities, particularly college towns. The scooters, which can travel up to 15 mph, are left on sidewalks for people to rent on a per-minute basis using their phone once they’ve signed up for the service and supplied credit card information.
After MSU solicited proposals to bring the motorized scooters to the campus area, a pair of companies — Santa Monica-based Bird and New Jersey-based White Fox Scooter — reached out to the city about the potential for a broader program. Although any sense of urgency was dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic, a Micromobility Committee made up of representatives of several municipal departments was formed to explore the pros and cons of allowing scooters and electric bikes to be rented along Mankato streets.
The committee determined that e-scooters, if closely regulated, would address goals in Mankato’s strategic plan, according to Kurt Klinder, the city’s GIS coordinator.
If the scooters result in fewer car trips, that would reduce pollutant and particulate emissions. The scooters could benefit the local transit system by giving riders an option beyond walking to reach sometimes-distant bus stops. Scooters would also provide another transportation alternative for people without a driver’s license or a car.
“Early vendor discussions indicate that residents would potentially be able to utilize e-scooters for less than one dollar for some trips, or even at no cost in certain cases,” a memo to the council stated. “There may be (an) opportunity to partner with human services organizations to provide trips at no cost to clientele.”
Each scooter is tracked by satellite-based GPS systems to within six feet of its precise location, Klinder said. That allows riders to be warned if they are approaching prohibited areas — for instance, the interior of the Mankato Place Mall or the civic center complex — and the motor to be shut down if the rider fails to change course. A machine’s speed can also be controlled, meaning that a maximum speed of 6 mph could be set if a rider was operating in a place — such as the Mankato River Trail — where higher speeds would be unsafe.
And the scooters can be turned off during certain times of the day. For example, they could be made unusable in the latter part of the evening to prevent scooter-induced pandemonium at bar-closing time.
The committee focused its research on the similar-to-Mankato communities of Pittsburgh, Kansas and Gastonia, North Carolina. Among the primary issues studied were whether there was equitable access to the machines, how safety and rider education were handled, and methods of controlling the parking of the scooters on public right-of-way.
New strategies have been developed by cities and the rental companies to discourage scooters from being left haphazardly on sidewalks and other public spots. That was a problem in cities where the service was first introduced five years ago, causing visual clutter and access issues for people with disabilities.
“That’s a headache we know we want to avoid at all costs,” Klinder said.
Next steps would involve discussions with the community, including property owners in areas where the scooters would be most prevalent, drafting an ordinance regulating scooter-sharing services and setting the rules for the pilot project. First, though, City Manager Susan Arntz wanted some assurance the council was interested in moving forward.
Council members asked multiple questions, including whether the city would be liable for injuries (not with proper indemnity clauses), whether DWI laws apply to motorized scooters (yes) and whether health professionals have weighed in (their opinions would be sought in the next phase of the project).
Ultimately, the elected officials offered favorable opinions and instructed staff to draft a scooter ordinance, develop a potential pilot project and collect data on how things go at MSU when students return in the fall.
“We’ll get some good information and feedback (from MSU’s experience),” Arntz said.