There would be “bedlam” and “chaos” on Missoula’s streets and sidewalks if City Council members approve regulations allowing e-scooters and the possibility of a shared e-bike system, local residents warned Monday night.
In a marathon session that gaveled to a close at 10:45 p.m., the council ultimately sent three proposed ordinances back to its Public Works Committee for even more discussion.
At least one member of the audience, longtime pedestrian activist Ross Best, urged the council to “wait a year or two” and let other cities try – and most likely fail – to get a handle on how best to manage e-scooters.
“They’re a fad,” Best said. “They’re unsafe. Reports from other cities that allow e-scooters make it clear there is chaos.”
Already, Best said, “pedestrians in Missoula are an endangered species. It is slightly better here than elsewhere, but it is not safe here.”
And it’ll get far worse if the city allows e-scooters and e-bikes to “zip past pedestrians at 15-20 mph,” he said. “Think about how dangerous these things would be to children, the elderly, the mentally disabled.”
But Ben Weiss, Missoula’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager, said the proposals he brought to the City Council earlier this year are an attempt to avoid some of the safety and environmental concerns that have plagued other, larger cities.
E-scooters aren’t even addressed in Missoula’s ordinances right now, Weiss said. And state law prohibits the vehicles in the public right of way.
“So currently, we have criminals riding e-scooters all around our community,” he said.
Rather than simply look the other way, Weiss said he has worked to create a framework for effectively managing the e-vehicles.
Data show that e-scooters, for example, are egalitarian, he said. “They are disproportionately used by people of color, by younger people. Forty percent of scooter riders have never commuted by bicycle. They’re a distinct group.”
Councilman Jordan Hess, who is chairman of the Public Works Committee, admitted the issue is complex. But like Weiss, his goal is to create a regulatory framework – “not to extend an open invitation for bedlam or mayhem.
“This is not an open invitation for a large corporate interest to come in and destroy our transportation system.”
“I wanted to give the staff all the tools they need” to manage the burgeoning use of electric-powered bicycles and scooters, Hess said.
It’s also another mode of transportation that could help Missoula reduce its contribution to greenhouse gases, he said. “Thirty-seven percent of our emissions are transportation related.”
Much of the night’s ire was directed at e-scooters.
“They’re always zipping in and out and all over the road,” complained Mary Jo Hoffman. “They’re really more like a plaything.”
Several speakers warned that e-scooters quickly end up in the landfill, so prone to destruction. One man told stories of abandoned and broken scooters littering the sidewalks in Kansas City. Others cited statistics of scooter-rider and pedestrian injuries, and even death.
“You should be able to safely walk down the street in Missoula,” said Best.
In the end, City Council members unanimously approved two narrowly focused ordinances – one that brings Missoula’s bicycle laws into compliance with updated state regulations adopted by the 2015 Legislature, and another that defines three classes of e-bikes, as well as e-scooters.
Deferred and returned to the Public Works Committee were the thorny regulatory ordinances, including one establishing the rules for use of e-bikes and e-scooters on city trails and open lands.
Also deferred was discussion and a vote on regulations needed should a business arrive in Missoula, asking to establish a dockless bike and scooter share systems.
And council members will get another crack at an ordinance that regulates the use of individually owned e-bikes and e-scooters.