With the recent influx of Bird Scooters and Explore Bike Share, a few more mobility options have been added to Memphis’ streets and neighborhoods, and early returns have been good. The white Explore bikes are a ubiquitous sight.
So are battery-depleted scooters, lying by the roadside, ready for pickup and recharge.
With early success breeding familiarity, there are some rumblings of disfavor — particularly concerning the electric scooters.
The murmurs involve complaints about improper parking, such as blocking sidewalks and right of ways. Scooters have been vandalized and discarded, with their GPS locators ripped out.
To prevent disorder from descending into chaos, the city passed the Shared Mobility Ordinance on July 24. Bike Share hit the streets in May, and Bird scooters were introduced in June.
The ordinance establishes a fee structure that will bring in about $73,000 annually, that includes a one-time $500 permit fee, with $250 annual renewals. Bird also pays the city $50 per scooter, with a $20,000 cap. The city takes in a buck a day per scooter with 200 scooters on the road at launch. These funds will be used solely for the construction and upkeep of shared mobility infrastructure and safety awareness.
The ordinance also manages the size of fleets, including possible expansions and future competition.
“As of now, it’s just those two operators, but I certainly see a point in the future where we have more in the city. In mid to large cities, especially on the West Coast and East Coast, they’re at a point now where there might be up to 10 different shared mobility operators,” said Nicholas Oyler, Bikeway & Pedestrian program manager for the City of Memphis.
Operators are required to provide designated parking for bikes and scooters within the Central Business Improvement District, which includes most of the Downtown area and medical district.
“We’ve been piloting some of those parking areas already with Bird in Downtown along Main Street with the idea to expand it. The operators have the responsibility to ensure their customers are leaving them in those spaces,” said Oyler, who coordinates with local and national representatives of Bird.
But the system operates with a dockless, non-designated parking system in the rest of the city.
A power-drained Bird scooter outside of an apartment complex in Vollintine-Evergreen. (Cole Bradley)
And non-designated parking has caused some concerns among pedestrians and particularly those within the limited mobility community. In high-traffic pedestrian areas that front businesses, the scooters can create an added obstacle and safety issue for a wheelchair-bound person, who requires room to maneuver and access wheelchair ramps.
“The Bird scooters might have a path to travel, but what it does is push somebody who uses a wheelchair into say the ramp that goes into a store, so it’s uncomfortable and you have to go over those bumps because the scooters don’t share that much sidewalk,” said Tim Wheat, program director with the Memphis Center for Independent Living, a local advocacy nonprofit for people with disabilities.
The regulations put the onus on operators, like Bird, to make sure customers park vehicles properly. Additionally, the ordinance orders sidewalks and ramps be kept free of vehicles too, preventing obstacles for pedestrians and the mobility-challenged. The scooters abide the same state law as bicycles; they can be parked on the sidewalk but are not supposed to be ridden on the sidewalk.
However, how these mandates are accomplished is up to the operator. For example, Bird requires the rider to take and send a photo of the parked scooter following their ride.
"We will operate a program designed to retrieve all of our vehicles every night. We will inspect every vehicle for necessary maintenance and repairs. Most importantly, the entire fleet will be repositioned to where the vehicles are wanted the next day, so they are not cluttering up our neighborhoods," said a Bird representative in an e-mail.
Customer education, parking verification and warnings and penalties for violations are the operator’s responsibility, along with providing data to the city showing compliance.
Further information is required to develop an understanding of the customer base and usage. This will help the city make decisions on infrastructure or improvements, like bike lanes or new sidewalks. The city requires crash and injury data as well.
“The way the draft regulations are currently written, during the first 12 months of operation the operator will have to submit a parking enforcement report once a month to show how things are going — how many warning and penalties they’ve issued. After the first year of operation, they will be required to submit it as part of an annual report,” said Oyler.
Since permits are reissued on an annual basis, operators with a history of non-compliance can simply be denied a permit, or in egregious cases, especially where safety is concerned, the city can issue an order to cease operations.
While parking is an issue that will ostensibly bedevil many mobility options; charging, on the other hand, is unique to Bird.
“A disproportionate amount of the parking issues are a result of the chargers,” said Oyler.
Collected every night via GPS by “chargers,” or contract employees, the scooters are taken to their homes at night to be plugged into an outlet to recharge. The workers place the scooters back in their nests, designated locations for freshly-charged scooters, by 5 a.m. the next morning. Unfortunately, there have been many complaints about scooters improperly placed back in their nests and scooters that have drained of power falling across the sidewalk.
“I think one thing Bird can do on its end is better educating the chargers on how to properly place them — making sure they’re not placing the scooters in such a way that they are creating an impassible path for people on the sidewalks, especially for those who use wheelchairs or an assisted mobility device,” said Oyler.
While wrinkles are still being ironed out as shared mobility options are introduced, there are still gaps in transportation. For people in the hinterlands of the city or those who can’t afford a car, these options could be a godsend, allowing them to get to and from work, or the store. For those with limited mobility, they are as useless as a pogostick.
“Overall, this form of transportation completely leaves out our community. The bike share is great for people who ride bikes, but we’re not seeing the blind community take up bike riding. This is not filling any gaps for our transportation,” said Wheat.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority offers MATA Plus, which is a reservation style curb pickup much like an Uber or Lyft. It is more affordable than the private ride shares but still costs twice as much as riding the bus.
According to Oyler, some bike share companies have tossed around the idea of a recumbent bike for mobility-challenged customers, but nothing beyond conversation. There are no on-the-ground options right now and those still wouldn’t be a viable solution for all.
Many of the improvements the Memphis Center for Independent Living advocates for go far beyond shared mobility — sidewalks in good repair, pedestrian crossings accessible to individuals with disabilities, fewer vehicles on the city’s streets.
“Where you make a walkable community, you also make it accessible for people with disabilities. We’re just so car-centric, and I’m afraid the Bird scooters and bikes are just a replacement...instead of having pedestrian-friendly areas. That walkable area is going to be accessible to us and something we could use for that basic access,” said Wheat.
Errant scooters can be dealt with by contacting Bird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-866-205-2442. The city can be reached at (901) 636-6710 or Nicholas.Oyler@memphistn.gov and they will work to make sure action is taken.