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Billings, Mont., Weighs Benefits of E-Scooter Operations

Planners with Yellowstone County and the city of Billings commissioned a feasibility study earlier this year to investigate whether a scooter-share or bike-share program would work here.

by Rob Rogers, Billings Gazette / October 12, 2020

(TNS) — Last summer, Bozeman saw its first flock of rental electric scooters descend on the town, and Billings is now looking at how complicated it might be to bring in similar rideshare programs.

The city even has a survey that residents can take.

Billings City Council was pitched the idea last year and at the time, Blink Rides, a rideshare e-scooter company based in Bozeman, was preparing to launch in that town. Scooter-share programs, which have grown in popularity over the last few years, park scooters around town, which riders then take and use by activating them with a smartphone app.

Once a rider is done using the scooter, they leave it where it's at for someone else to use. Generally riders are charged a nominal fee and then charged an additional set rate for every mile they ride.

Planners with Yellowstone County and the City of Billings, under the Metropolitan Planning Organization umbrella, commissioned a feasibility study earlier this year to investigate whether a scooter-share or bike-share program would work here. They hope to have it finished by the end of the year.

"What form would it take?" said Elyse Monat, the active transportation planner for the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

In some respects, a scooter-share or bike-share program would fit really well in Billings, she said. Scooters or bikes parked around the city's two medical centers would make it easy for health care workers to zip downtown for lunch.

The bikes or scooters could also work well for college students needing quick and easy transportation around MSUB and the surrounding neighborhoods, she said.

Bike-share programs have been around longer and tend to be better known by people, Monat said. The most common use a docking system. Bikes are parked and locked in a dock and then released when a rider pays the fee to use them. Those bikes also have to be returned to a dock when a rider is done using it.

As smart phone technology has improved and become more widespread, some bike-share programs ditched their docks and started using a mechanism that locked the bike up so it couldn't be ridden. Those bikes become usable when a rider rents them through a smartphone app.

A third type of bike-share uses a hybrid of the two programs — a docking system for parking and activation through a smartphone.

Over the last few years, as bike-share and scooter-share programs proliferated so, too, have stories of injuries, accidents and vandalism related to the vehicles. A couple years ago a popular Instagram account was dedicated to just documenting people destroying rideshare e-scooters.

Issues relating to vandalism and accidents are certainly on the radar of city and county planners.

"That was something we wanted to get out ahead of," Monat said, which is one of the reasons they're eager for residents to fill out the survey.

If they can get a better idea of what people want and how they would use the scooter-share or bike-share programs, the study will better reflect the needs of the community.

"We're just looking for people's feelings and input," she said.

Also on planners' radar is downtown Billings' transient and homeless population.

"One thing we're definitely looking at is equity concerns," Monat said.

The study will look at ways these rideshare programs — which rely heavily on smartphone technology and payment through credit and debit cards linked to the apps on those smartphones — could by used by those who don't have smartphones or credit cards.

Planners are looking to have the study finished by December, after which the findings would be presented to the city and county planning boards, and then to the county commissioners and city council.

©2020 the Billings Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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