Indy’s Scooter Conundrum

Shooing away scooters was straight out of the playbook of many cities. Here’s how other metro areas acted when Bird and its competitors arrived, and what will happen next for Indy.
Pedestrians dodging and jumping to evade scooter drivers careening too quickly down the sidewalk. Scooter drivers screaming at bystanders to get out of the way. City council inboxes jammed with complaints from residents, particularly those in downtown, Broad Ripple, and Fountain Square, where foot traffic is higher.

That’s how Indianapolis City Councilor Zach Adamson recalls the sudden arrival of hundreds of dockless electric scooters in the Circle City in mid-June.

“It created a crisis that prompted us to move faster so we could get control of the situation before it got out of control,” Adamson says.

Moving fast had not been the plan. The City-County Council was aware of the dockless bike and scooter systems sprouting up across the country and had been chatting with companies, including Lime, about bringing such systems to Indianapolis. But with “major infrastructure collapse”—the potholes (and sinkholes) that have plagued Indy all year—and an “out-of-control” level of homicides to deal with, Adamson says, electric scooters just weren’t at the top of the priority list.

But plans went out the window when flocks of Bird scooters descended on the Circle City on June 15—without any official heads up to city officials. (Although, Adamson says, it wasn’t entirely out of left field. “If other companies were thinking about it, [Bird] was thinking about it.”) And while Lime had been in talks with the city since late last year about bringing dockless vehicles to Indy, they couldn’t wait and allow their competitor to take total control of the market. Lime scooters arrived June 23, bringing Indy’s dockless e-scooter total up to more than 800 vehicles.

Frustrated, the city sent cease-and-desist letters to both companies not long after they entered the market—Bird initially ignored the request—and by mid-July, just one month after they’d first arrived, the scooters had all flown the coop, rounded up and shipped out as the city council hammered out new regulations for dockless transit.

Why such a big fuss over little two-wheeled scooters that top out at a cool 15 mph? In theory, beyond just being a fun way to tour the city, electric scooters are meant to be an affordable way to solve the “last mile” problem of public transportation—that extra distance from a bus stop or train station to your final destination. (Or in Indy’s case, maybe the distance from a decidedly cheaper parking garage to your office.) Birds are easy to use—download the app, locate one with GPS, and pay the fee (typically $1 plus 15 cents per minute). Unlike Pacers Bikeshare, the dockless system means you can park your scooter wherever you’d like when you’re finished.

But what happens when someone throws a Bird into the canal? What happens when the sidewalk on Mass Ave is illegally crammed with scooter riders on Friday night? Who do you call if a Lime (or three) is blocking the entrance to your business? These are the types of questions that have had cities scrambling.

The “arrive first, ask questions later” business model is nothing new—rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft had cities hustling to regulate a new system that residents soon just expected to have at their fingertips. (Invite anyone under 35 to a wedding where Uber doesn’t operate and prepare for the inevitable groans.) It’s no surprise that Bird’s CEO, Travis VanderZanden, was an executive at both Lyft and Uber before starting the e-scooter company last year.

And while residents could—and likely did—dismiss the scooter ban as another instance of the city being slow to adopt an emerging technology or resistant to improving the Indy’s lackluster public transportation, the city’s reaction mirrored plenty of other metros where the scooters were suddenly and unexpectedly dumped. Nashville, Tennessee, kicked out its Birds in early June after impounding 400 scooters picked up on city streets and sidewalks. Austin, Texas, pulled the scooters in late April to pass new regulations, after which the scooter companies returned. The city of Milwaukee filed a lawsuit against Bird arguing that electric scooters were illegal to operate on any city street or sidewalk under Wisconsin state statutes, meaning that riders who took advantage of the system could be fined for doing so. Bird initially argued federal law allowed them to operate in Milwaukee by not classifying them as a “motorized vehicle,” but as of August 8, the company has left town until new legislation can be passed.

Not all cities were as quick to evict the scooters. Arlington, Virginia, was completely unaware Birds would begin roosting in July, but the county is working on regulations while riders scoot on. In Atlanta, where Bird arrived in May, the scooters have remained extremely popular all summer while the city council slowly works on regulations—although a viral photo of a man riding a Bird on the interstate downtown caused some outcry in July. Kansas City and Cincinnati both set up interim agreements with Bird after the company arrived.

But it seems that the cities with the least controversy are the ones that either worked with the scooter companies prior to launch or had regulations and infrastructure in place by the time of their arrival. Dallas, which already had dealt with an onslaught of dockless bikes from five different companies littered across its sidewalks for nearly a year by the time scooters arrived in late June, approved regulations for a six-month test program just before Bird and Lime launched, amending a city ordinance that banned motorized scooters.

And after watching the drama unfold in Nashville, Memphis eagerly welcomed Birds in mid-June, setting up a temporary operating agreement with the company. The timing was ripe for launch—Memphis had just rolled out its Explore bikeshare and was ready to introduce a shared mobility ordinance that would govern both systems.

“We’ve invested in a lot of bike infrastructure over the last decade, so this wasn’t something that we were caught flat-footed by,” says Memphis city council member Kemp Conrad. “It was something we would have been doing anyway.”

Conrad says the public response to the scooters has been extremely positive. There was no element of surprise in Bird’s launch in Memphis—the city and the company worked together—but the perhaps the biggest difference from many other cities is that in Memphis, e-scooters are allowed on the sidewalks. (Conrad says the city has several large sidewalks that “frankly aren’t used that much.”)

But in Indianapolis, riding on the sidewalks was one of the biggest problems, according to Adamson. E-scooters are barred from sidewalks within the Mile Square, as well as on the Cultural and Monon trails. And while Adamson says he thinks the latter could someday become fair game for e-scooters, he’s not comfortable with opening up sidewalks. In fact, he says, a silver lining of the Bird’s unexpected scooter drop was that the city council was able to see how Hoosiers would treat e-scooters on sidewalks before the council decided where it wanted the vehicles to be legal.

“I think the initial thought was that because [e-scooters] go about as fast as a bike, we could allow them in many places a bike would normally go, such as the Cultural Trail or Monon or sidewalks,” Adamson says. But after seeing  how Hoosiers handled the scooters, “we thought there’s no way we can responsibly allow riders in the places where pedestrians frequent; they’re just too reckless.”

Hence the $1-per-vehicle, per-day fee the city is requesting shared mobility operators pay. Bird does this by default as part of their “Save Our Sidewalks” campaign, stating that part of that fee is meant to support bike infrastructure in the cities they operate. For Lime, the $1 per vehicle per day fee has been thornier because it isn’t part of their standard procedure and makes it much more costly to operate in Indy than other cities. But according to Lime regional general manager Jason Wilde, the company supports what that fee is meant to do and wants to both support infrastructure in the city and provide anonymous rider data to the city to show where infrastructure support is needed.

“[The fee] caught us a little bit by surprise, but we are continuing to work collaboratively [with the city] to make sure that we’re able to reach equity goals the city has, reach transportation goals, and incentivize users and companies to continue to invest in those areas,” Wilde says. “The fee structure as laid out can work counter to that in our opinion, so we’re continuing to work on something that will still bring tremendous value for infrastructure back to the city, but will also incentivize us as companies to still invest in more transit-stark areas that might not have the highest utilization but have drastic need for mobility options.”

Other issues included the “littering” of scooters, riders blocking sidewalks or doorways with illegally parked vehicles, which the city now can fine the respective scooter company $25 for each instance. Adamson says the primary goal of the regulations was to hold the companies accountable for city code violations, and a permitting process is key to that.

“An existing law says you cannot operate a private business in the public right of way without a permit, and these companies operate entirely in the public right of way,” he says.

Wilde says Lime plans to submit its permit application in the coming days (update: Lime submitted paperwork on Monday, August 13), and says he “can’t imagine it would be too much longer” before the scooter are back on Indy streets. WISH reported on Thursday that Bird has applied for its permit, so they too should be back fairly soon.

“I think ultimately all cities are excited about what scooters and micromobility will be able to bring to cities,” Wilde says. “What they’re looking at is just making sure they can regulate them in a fashion that will work for the city, the citizens, and the companies without just being a free-for-all.”

And while initially Proposal 120, which contained the scooter regulations the city approved on July 16, was drafted in April as a prohibition bill banning any dockless system from entering the market, Adamson says the Indy’s need for better transit is a big reason why they’re working hard to fit scooters into the framework of the city.

“An outright ban would have been much easier—we could have just been done with it and not had to worry about them,” Adamson says. “But I think the majority of us on the council do believe our transit system is woefully inadequate, and there needs to be something that can help bridge the gap and increase connectivity. We definitely find value in the premise of the scooters; it just boils down to the safe operation and maintaining an orderly coexistence with the scooters.”