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City of Portland considering pilot of dockless electric scooters this summer


Care to scoot?
(Photos: Jonathan Maus)

In an attempt to ride the wave of a mobility revolution sweeping cities across the globe, the City of Portland has confirmed they are considering a launch of a program that would allow private companies to operate dockless e-scooters in the public right-of-way during a pilot period later this summer.

The scooters will be of the “dockless” variety, meaning they won’t need to be parked in a designated area or at a special kiosk. At least that’s how they work in most cities. Dockless e-scooters are newcomers in the shared mobility space and have only been launched in about four U.S. cities since last fall.

Details of the future Portland policy and potential operational restrictions private companies would have to abide by have not been made public yet. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has just started to talk about the program publicly.

The first public mention of the plans (that we know of) came Tuesday night when PBOT bike share program manager Steve Hoyt-McBeth was on the agenda of the monthly Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting. “The scooter share model is similar to dockless bike share,” read the agenda item. “Scooters are available for checkout in public space for short, one-way trips for a small fee and do not require any infrastructure to complete the trip.” Hoyt-McBeth wanted to ask the committee for specific guidance and feedback, “on electric scooter rental, including evaluation criteria and protecting pedestrian access and safety.”

Sidewalk space has put e-scooters in the eye of a media and political storm in other cities. San Francisco’s experience has been nothing short of a “saga“.

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I test rode one of these scooters back in March when one of the leading providers of dockless bikes and scooters, Lime, was in Portland to lay groundwork for a potential launch. My personal verdict: They are awesome! These scooters are fun and efficient was to move around.

In Portland, the sticking points will likely be around how to best integrate them into existing road and sidewalk uses. There are likely also to be concerns over equity. Activist and former mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone has been outspoken about the scooters on Twitter. Asked for a comment on this story, she had questions: “Portland’s downtown is already well-connected — do we need another mode there? What are the true costs and benefits to the public? Homeless people can’t occupy sidewalks but discarded scooters can?”

Michal Nakashimada (@MichaelNaka), a former product designer at urban mobility company Moovel, is a proponent of the scooters and told us he’s “excited” that Portland is moving forward. “I have been closely following dockless deployments in cities across the world, I’ve witnessed the enormous potential for dockless micro-mobility to replace car trips and connect people to regional transit systems,” Nakashimada shared with us via email today. “I would like to see PBOT develop a flexible framework that gives companies the pathway to increase their fleet sizes as they meet utilization, safety, equity and data sharing requirements. If the city mandates a fixed cap on the number of vehicles with no ability to grow inline with utilization rates, it can hinder companies from providing a viable transportation service, especially in communities of concern. My hope is to see city transportation officials and companies work closely together on this to create a safe, green, and viable transportation alternative in our city.”

For their part, PBOT is remaining tight-lipped for now. Communications Director John Brady did however tell us that they are considering a pilot of e-scooters sometime this summer. The details of the pilot program, such as how many companies would be invited, and how long the test would last, are still up in the air.

It’s noteworthy that PBOT is moving forward with dockless scooters and not dockless bikes. It appears they are still content to tweak their existing Biketown system, instead of embracing a new, truly dockless system from a third-party provider.

If this scooter pilot moves forward — and if PBOT gives companies enough elbow room to realize the potential of their service — it will be an interesting summer on the streets of Portland. Stay tuned.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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