Through natural expansion and incorporation, the Memphis area has doubled in size over the past half-century. Unfortunately, access to transportation has not kept pace. The Memphis Area Transit Authority and an, on again, off again trolley system can only go so far.
“Memphis is a city that has some mobility challenges that includes a lack of options for our citizens. We have a very large city; about 340 square miles. We’ve doubled in size in the last 40 years. We haven’t doubled the amount of funding that we give to our transit system,” said Doug McGowen, City of Memphis' chief operating officer.
New services are coming online to fill the gap. Explore Bike Share, a station-based bike system, launched in May 2018, followed by Bird scooters a month later. These services provide another option for Memphians who are traveling from point A to point B, to get to point C.
For example if you live in Midtown and take the bus Downtown everyday, but your office is a mile away from the MATA stop, you can hop on a Bird for a fast, affordable way to make your morning meeting.
“We’ve seen shared mobility happening at a quick clip in America. We were thinking about this when Explore Bike Share came and launched a station-based bike system in the city,” said McGowan, who also sits on the board of Explore Bike Share.
On June 15, the California-based scooter-share company introduced 200 scooters into Memphis’ growing list of transportation options. The scooters are available around Downtown, Midtown, Uptown, South City and Cooper-Young. As ridership increases, so will the availability and number of scooters. As many as 500 are available under the city’s operating agreement with Bird.
Bird looks to partner and collaborate with cities — such as Memphis — that share a vision of creating a community with fewer cars, less traffic and more mobility options.
"Memphis is a city on the move in the middle of a transportation resurgence, and they are embracing new technologies and companies that are introducing multimodal transportation options to the city - including Bird,” according to a Bird spokesperson via email interview.
Rentals run one dollar plus 15 cents per minute. Scooters can be found via an app, much like rideshares like Uber and Lyft. They can travel with a range of 15 miles per charge. Those interested can download the app and sign up at www.birdapp.com.
And Bird says safety is a top priority, which includes: throttling the speed of scooters to a 15 mph maximum; requiring riders to upload a driver’s license and confirm they are 18 years or older; providing an in-app tutorial on how to ride a Bird and how to park it, and posting clear safety instructions on each Bird. Bird has also donated free helmets to local users.
“We collaborated with Memphis to create Bird parking spots throughout the city, and we are looking to continue educating riders on how and where to park,” according to a Bird spokesperson.
The city has also exceeded expectations in memberships and the number of rides with these new mobility options. Between the bike share system and the scooters they are pushing 50,000 rides, according to McGowan.
Gaps in service are common for Memphis’ public transit system. Waits are common for riders. Some areas have limited or even no service at all. Plans are to have the Bird scooters and bikes fill those gaps to connect areas to MATA routes.
“It’s complimentary so we now have a bike share system, Bird scooters, which can be first mile, last mile or only mile option, and those are matched nicely with our transit system provider MATA.”
MATA is looking to modernize their operation by making sure they are covering as many riders as they possibly can and connecting them to the places they need to be, according to McGowan.
Part of that modernization is coordinating with companies like Bird to connect all of Memphis.
On July 24, the city will vote on an ordinance to regulate shared mobility options like Bird. Issues around routes, parking and safety will be finalized. Bird has also committed to “low-income” outreach.
“Since Bird launched in June, the community of Memphis has rapidly embraced us as a convenient, environmentally friendly way to get around. As ridership continues to grow in Memphis, we are in close conversation with city leaders to increase the number of Birds to meet demand and to expand the neighborhoods in which they’re available,” according to a Bird spokesperson.
Right now, they are in the process of working with the city to extend the operating agreement. Seeing the demand from riders, they will be adding more scooters in strategic places throughout the city while the permanent ordinance is being finalized. Once passed, the city has three days to formalize the regulations. The company is currently operating under a temporary agreement.
McGowan said they'd seen other cities who had scooters deployed in their cities not go as smoothly as they might have, largely because there wasn’t coordination between the provider and the cities. Such was the case in Nashville. Earlier this year, scooters were introduced to its streets. In June, Bird suspended operation until rules are put in place to govern their use.
"So, several months ago, we set about putting draft ordinances, policies and regulations in place such we were ready when shared mobility assets came to Memphis.” said McGowan.
Assuming an agreement, if Bird can model itself of the success of companion-like Explore Bike Share, it can likely carve out a niche in Memphis where there is a need to be met.
There has been pretty widespread adoption of the bike share system in the city and the organization is getting ready for an expansion in 2019. They have 600 bikes at 60 stations on the ground and are getting prepared for another 30 stations and 300 bikes by the end of 2019.
And maybe in time there’ll be a likewise expansion of scooters.
“End of the day, what we need to do is to get our riders where they need to be, connect employees with their jobs and to do it in a way that’s as efficient as possible by providing new options that shrinks our city,” said McGowen.