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Can Scooters Generate Infrastructure Funds for Portland, Ore.?

A second e-scooter pilot project in Portland, Ore., launched with more companies, but also more fees to support improved scooter and bike infrastructure.

One of the most data-rich e-scooter programs in the country has relaunched with an updated focus on removing the vehicles from sidewalks and parks, along with generating a funding stream to build out more infrastructure.

Portland, Ore., announced the launch of a second year-long pilot to further explore the micro-mobility rent-to-ride devices, granting permits to three scooter operators: Bolt, Spin and Lime. Meanwhile, several other companies — Shared Technologies Inc., Clevr Mobility, Jump and Razor USA — are in the final stages of completing the permitting process to operate in the city.

This year’s pilot will place some 2,500 e-scooters on Portland streets, with the possibility of increasing that number to as much as 15,000 by January 2020, assuming certain goals are met. Many of those goals are related to ensuring the safe operation of the vehicles and increasing their use in economically disadvantaged areas.

The new pilot, which will run until the end of April in 2020, follows the city’s 120-day scooter test phase last year, which found some 700,369 trips taken on 2,043 scooters for a total of 801,887 miles.

That initial pilot ran from July to November 2018 and saw 1,622 reports of sidewalk riding, which accounted to 27 percent of all reports, according to a recent report by the Portland Bureau of Transportation. And sidewalk riding was much more common on streets lacking adequate bike lanes.

In the next phase of the program, companies will be required to take more proactive steps to ensure the scooters are being operated safely and parked in appropriate locations. After one warning, riders could get a $15 fine for illegal parking or a $50 citation for riding on a sidewalk. Riders will also be charged a 25-cent street usage fee, with operators charged a 5-cent to 20-cent per ride right-of-way fee in an effort to generate funding to provide safer scooter and bike facilities.

“In Portland, e-scooter companies will find a combination of penalties and potential incentives that will reward their efforts to create innovative solutions that reduce conflict between e-scooter users and people who walk or use mobility devices on our sidewalks," Chris Warner, interim transportation director, said in a statement.

Incentives often come in the form of the city increasing the number of scooter units allowed. Earning those increases could possibly come in the form of introducing scooters with seats, allowing more riders to access them.

The pilot was also notable for the detailed level of data it collected. Not only was use data shared with the city, but riders were also surveyed to get a sense of their scooter use.

For example, “34 percent of Portland riders and 48 percent of visitors took an e-scooter instead of driving a personal car or using Uber, Lyft or taxi,” reads the report. 

"With good data, we can make good decisions," said Warner. "Our comprehensive data requirements helped show that e-scooters eliminated thousands of car trips last year."

William Henderson, CEO of Ride Report, a Portland-based software company that partners with cities to provide and analyze transportation data, said e-scooters are “meeting a real need,” but added that not “all the kinks have been worked out.”

A city’s right-of-way, said Henderson, represents a valuable asset that needs to be managed effectively.

“The golden egg is the right of way,” he said. “The reason that these companies are making money … is because the right-of-way that they’re using is tremendously underpriced, and it’s under-utilized."

“What these companies have figured out is, ‘we can make a lot of money, just by putting a relatively inexpensive vehicle on the streets, allowing people to use the streets more efficiently,’” he added.

Scooters can be found in about 100 U.S. cities, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and provided some 38.5 million trips in 2018.

They are often batched into the same basket of “disruptive mobility” assigned to ride-hailing companies, often blamed for increased traffic congestion and declining transit use. Cities are viewing the emerging scooter market within the context of how disruptive the ride-hailing industry turned out to be.

“I do think there’s a sustainable industry here. And I think there’s a clear need for this service. And people find it compelling. So I think the long-term trend is really, really good,” said Henderson.

“That said, I wouldn’t be that surprised if we saw a little bit of a pulling back at some point, especially depending on what happens in the macro-market around Uber and Lyft,” he added. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.