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How Wisconsin cities are managing electric scooter programs, 5 years in

Wisconsin first passed a law regulating electric scooters in 2019

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Many scooters are piled onto a sidewalk as pedestrians pass by.
People walk past electric scooters parked on a sidewalk Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in downtown Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Dockless electric scooters are commonplace on streets and sidewalks across Wisconsin. After a lawsuit in Milwaukee spurred state laws in 2019 regulating electric scooters, the two-wheeled technology landed everywhere from Beloit to Green Bay.

But Wisconsin cities are realizing different levels of success with companies providing this alternative transportation.

Some companies have run into financial trouble and merged or filed bankruptcy. Some cities have ended dockless scooter programs altogether.

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Milwaukee pilot program takes off

The state’s most popular and lucrative program started tense in 2018 when the company Bird Global, Inc. began offering its electric scooters for riders in Milwaukee. The city sued to get the scooters off the streets until the state passed a law the next year to regulate this type of transportation.

With an administrative foundation in place, the city of Milwaukee moved forward with a pilot program to try out dockless scooters on its own terms. That program brought multiple companies to town and laid the groundwork for two additional pilot programs.

“The city understood that scooters were something that could add a lot of options for people to get around the city,” Milwaukee Senior Transportation Planner Zac Roder told WPR’s “Wisconsin Today.” “But we also understood that there were challenges with scooters, and we wanted to do things in a careful way.”

This year, the Milwaukee Common Council voted to make the dockless electric scooter program permanent.

The transportation company Lime told WPR that Milwaukee users took more than 450,000 rides on its scooters in 2023, which was a 665 percent increase from the year before. Lime has seen nearly 250,000 unique riders take over 1 million trips around the city since 2019, traveling a total of 1.5 million miles, the company said.

The scooters’ popularity brought in $400,000 to the city of Milwaukee through the two most recent pilot programs.

“That helps us to fund the administration of the program and build out some of this infrastructure.” Roder said. “It also goes into our broader transportation fund to help the city continue to grow, to help make our streets safer and better for people walking, biking, taking transit, and making it overall a safer city for everyone.”

Appleton comes full circle

Other Wisconsin cities haven’t seen the same kind of results as Milwaukee.

City officials in Appleton are weighing whether to continue their dockless electric scooter program with Bird, a company founded by Appleton native Travis VanderZanden in 2017.

Bird brought its scooters to VanderZanden’s hometown in 2021. But VanderZanden left the company in 2023. Then, Bird filed for bankruptcy in December, leading to challenges for cities in Wisconsin and across the country.

Appleton Public Works Director Danielle Block said Bird was late on payments it owed the city in 2023. Residents reported issues with scooters being left in rights of way and on private property, city officials said.

Combined with concerns about the stability of the company after its bankruptcy restructuring, an Appleton city committee questioned continuing a partnership with Bird.

“That was staff’s feedback after talking with Bird, that we recommended we wouldn’t move forward with an agreement until we had a solution in place,” Block told the committee May 6.

Bird did not respond to WPR’s request for comment. The company sent its principal government partnerships manager, Adam Davis, to Appleton to meet with city leaders and address the city’s Municipal Services Committee that oversees the scooter program on May 6.

Davis told the committee ridership in Appleton is high compared to other cities of its size, and Bird is committed to working with the city to remain in Appleton “in 2028 and beyond.”

Bird flies the coop

Bird remains in Wisconsin cities, such as Green Bay and Whitewater, but its financial troubles led the company to pull out of midsize and smaller markets like Janesville.

Janesville Assistant to the City Manager Nick Faust told WPR’s “Wisconsin Today” that their dockless electric scooter program had performed well, but Bird wanted to focus on its higher population markets as the company restructured.

“Believe it or not, we had just over 10,000 trips taken right here in little old Janesville on those  scooters, for just under 18,000 miles traveled.” Faust said. “I liked those stats, because I think they’re quite impressive when you think about the size and the makeup of our community and our transportation network as it exists.”

Faust said Bird had reported that Janesville’s local fleet manager performed in the top 3 percent of the nation in resetting improperly parked scooters.

In nearby Beloit, one independent local fleet manager ended its relationship with Bird after one year due to issues working with the national scooter company.

Faust hopes the success Janesville had with Bird entices another scooter company to partner with the city, or even bring Bird back sometime down the line.

Local efforts hit the brakes

A few entrepreneurs in the state have tried to launch their own dockless scooter operations. But so far, they haven’t been able to get off the ground.

The city of Altoona had an agreement with the company Robyn Scooters, which was owned by Eau Claire resident Carolyn Miller. Altoona City Administrator Mike Golat told WPR the city was ready but Miller and Robyn Scooters did not move forward.

Miller did not respond to WPR’s request for comment. Robyn Scooters’ mobile app remains on the App Store. The most recent post on the company’s Facebook page, from June 2023, said the scooters were in Eau Claire and beta testing with a new platform.

Another local company is in its infant stages in Oshkosh. Tylere Moxon is in the process of launching Foxe Rides to offer rentals in “small- to mid-sized cities with a University presence,” according to the company’s website.

Earlier this year, he posted on LinkedIn that he is seeking investors to launch an e-scooter program in Oshkosh.

Oshkosh Planning Services Manager Mark Lyons told WPR that Foxe Rides looked to do a pilot program several years ago, but it did not move forward.

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