Missoula council, citizens wary of e-bike, e-scooter rental system


Traditional bicycles ridden by their owners could see new neighbors on Missoula’s bike paths in coming months or years. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Even though Missoula is a bike-friendly city, its City Council on Wednesday had difficulty grappling with the idea of a shared dockless bike and scooter system.

Passing an ordinance that updates bike and scooter share systems would give Missoula residents age 18 or older the opportunity to rent an electric bike or scooter, or e-bikes and e-scooters, for a day. However, updates to the regulations and implementation of the devices might cause issues.

At the least, local bicycle laws will be updated to adhere with state laws, which changed after the 2015 Legislature, but language could also be added addressing electrically assisted bikes and scooters.

“Passing these ordinances doesn’t mean a scooter share system is coming to Missoula, Montana, tomorrow. What this means is that we have an orderly framework for regulation that allows a system to come under reasonable regulations,” Councilman Jordan Hess said.

Already, a few businesses have expressed interest in operating bike and scooter share systems via a yearly permit with the city, including nationwide company called Bird and a business headquartered in Bozeman.

While details on how Missoula’s system would work are still under development, often a bike or scooter can be rented with a credit card via an app, and later can be parked at the renter’s destination. The business that operates the system returns the bikes or scooters to their original location.

The dockless systems would be funded and operated through private businesses.

“We have adopted mode split goals, meaning by the year 2045, we want to triple the percentage of trips being made by biking, walking and busing, and cut in half the percentage of trips of driving alone in a vehicle. We see e-bikes and e-scooters opening up the options for people to do something other than drive alone,” Missoula bicycle and pedestrian program manager Ben Weiss said in an interview. “E-bikes are kind of a gateway for people who might want to ride a bike, but aren’t physically fit enough or maybe are mobility challenged in some way.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, concerns arose about city involvement in moving improperly parked bikes or scooters, leaving them in pedestrian or business walkways, and the possibility of isolating certain populations who may not have a smartphone or credit card. Requiring a business to purchase a permit and create operation plans could address the issues.

“These companies want regulations. The days of kind of dropping and letting the city figure it out are seemingly over, and they want to be good partners,” Weiss said.

Councilwoman Julie Merritt was concerned about the equipment taking up too much real estate, and Councilman John DiBari voiced his concern about the definitions for electrically assisted bicycles in the ordinance, which would allow three different classes of e-bikes and scooters to be used in the city. Class 3 e-bikes could reach a speed of 28 miles per hour.

“I’d also like to reconsider the Class 2 or Class 3 e-bikes and e-scooters to be allowed on shared use paths. I think, as I look into the future around this, it sort of begs the question of whether, at some point if we go down this path of allowing essentially motorized vehicles on our commuter trails, we’re going to be having to contemplate a third class of infrastructure,” DiBari said.

Councilwoman Heidi West said she’d like to see kids using the bikes and scooters. She suggested negotiating age limits with companies.  

“I think there’s a large demographic in Missoula that’s maybe not driving or not 18 that have a lot of activities within our community, whether it’s getting to sports practice or after-school activities in general. I think this could be really beneficial for folks in that age bracket,” West said.

Free Cycles used to leave free bikes around the city, and Missoula Parks & Recreation offers Dasani Blue Bikes for rent at Currents Aquatics Center. The University of Montana has rented out yellow bikes to students for 20 years, Weiss said.

However, having an expansive rental system requires more oversight and collaboration between the city and the company involved.

Portland, Oregon, has implemented an e-scooter system and provides about 2,500 scooters in the city. A pilot study of the program showed that about 700,000 trips were made with the scooters and garnered high community support.

In Portland, about 34 percent of residents and 48 percent of visitors replaced vehicle trips. About 176 hospital visits were also recorded because of the scooters; however, 83 percent did not involve collisions.

Missoula resident Keith Matthaes said that he’s spent the last three winters on Pacific Beach in San Diego, California, and saw the evolution of a citywide e-bike and e-scooter system. Bikes are usually left in pedestrian walkways, and wrecks are a growing problem in the area.

Matthaes said he rides his bike every day in Missoula, but fears the same problems will arise in the Garden City.

“I think it’ll change Missoula, and not necessarily for the good,” he said.

A public hearing is scheduled on June 3, in the Missoula City Council Chambers at 140 W. Pine St.

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.