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The City of Grand Rapids is in discussions with dockless electric scooter companies Bird and Lime, whose product is shown, to bring the transit service to downtown in a way that works for all parties. The City of Grand Rapids is in discussions with dockless electric scooter companies Bird and Lime, whose product is shown, to bring the transit service to downtown in a way that works for all parties. COURTESY PHOTO

GR officials plan ahead for emergence of e-scooters

BY Friday, September 28, 2018 08:32pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Dockless electric scooters could soon become available on the streets in Michigan’s second-largest city.

Officials in Grand Rapids say they’ve been in recent discussions with representatives from the venture capital-backed scooter companies Lime and Bird about bringing the nascent technology to the city.

The talks are aimed at deploying the scooters in a way that “sets up both sides to be successful,” said Josh Naramore, managing director of Mobile GR, the city department that oversees the public parking inventory and other transportation initiatives.

As the proliferation of dockless scooters has spread to cities around the country, municipal governments like Grand Rapids are now working more closely with the companies to utilize new mobility technologies in a way that works for all stakeholders, Naramore said.

“I think like a lot of cities around the country, Grand Rapids is just trying to react but also be really thoughtful and intentional about how mobility solutions are integrated into the urban fabric,” he said, adding that Grand Rapids wants to make sure technologies like scooters complement existing transportation infrastructure. “We want to make sure we’re protecting the investments we’ve already made, but then thinking through how are people going to operate these on the street.”

It’s unclear exactly when the scooters — which can be accessed via smartphone application for $1 plus $0.15 per minute — could begin appearing on city streets and street corners. Naramore said the city and scooter companies remain in discussions over an “operating framework” that works for all parties.

Representatives from Bird did not send a statement prior to deadline for this report. Spokespeople for Lime did not respond to a request for comment. The relatively new companies already have achieved “unicorn” status with valuations of more than $1 billion.

Both companies have been moving west across the state over the last few months, starting in Detroit this summer and spreading to Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Lansing in recent weeks, according to reports.

The electric scooters tend to have a range of between 15 and 40 miles, according to reports. The companies pay people to charge them overnight.

Before giving the go-ahead for the electric scooters in Grand Rapids, the city hopes to address concerns around safety, ensure they won’t block sidewalks and determine how they might be used by people without smartphones.

In many ways, Grand Rapids officials appear to be approaching scooters and how they can best complement existing transportation initiatives similarly to their counterparts in Detroit.

For example, Detroit capped the total number of scooters for both Bird and Lime at 600, according to a recent report in Crain’s Detroit Business.

However, many questions linger around the viability of scooters as an actual form of transportation as opposed to just a fun way for those with smartphones and a bank account to get around.

For one, the e-scooters only began appearing earlier this year and largely kicked off in warmer climates on the west coast. It’s unclear how they’ll operate or hold up during winter.

Additionally, the emergence of privately-owned scooters comes as the city prepares to enter the final stages of planning for a bike-share system around the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods.

Naramore said a bike-share system and e-scooters are largely viewed through the same lens by users. The deployment of the scooters likely will not affect the planning for the bike-share program, which could be finalized by the end of the year, he said.

Despite those concerns, the proactive approach to nascent transportation products emphasized by planners in Grand Rapids and Detroit makes for a sound approach, according to academics who track the rise of this new technology.

“In coordination with cities and urban planners and the community, there can be a role,” Robert Hampshire, a research assistant professor at University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, told Crain’s Detroit Business in a recent report on scooters. “But there have to be proactive steps to make that happen because these companies won’t care if they are left to their own devices.”

Naramore said Mobile GR has been in close contact with Detroit officials to gain insight into their experience with the dockless scooters, adding that the two cities have a “friendly competition” around establishing best practices for urban mobility.

Ultimately, Naramore expects the city and the scooter companies will find common ground over how the technology can complement existing transportation options around the region and lead to less dependence on single-occupancy vehicles in the urban area.

“We’re trying to put all these tools in the toolbox so that people can … drive to downtown and you don’t need to use your car again,” Naramore said. “You could be here for days at a time, weeks at a time or just throughout the travel day.”

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