Electrically assisted bikes and scooters gain traction with Missoula City Council

A new city ordinance could make room for commercially available e-bikes and e-scooters on Missoula’s streets and trails. (Missoula Current)

The City Council took preliminary steps Wednesday to permit and regulate the commercial use of electronically assisted bikes and scooters, and it has turned to other cities looking for best practices.

While no company has committed to bringing the technology to Missoula just yet, Ben Weiss said it’s likely coming, and the city is looking to get ahead of needed regulations while permitting what’s increasingly seen as an affordable and green transportation option.

“I wanted to balance the need for regulations with some flexibility, so if a company were to come here and something wasn’t working for our community, we could change it quickly,” said Weiss, the city’s bike and pedestrian coordinator. “We want them to be an equitable and useful mobility tool.”

Weiss said the city won’t place a cap on the number of devices a company could introduce to Missoula. That will be market driven, as most providers have targeted goals for use at roughly three rides per day, per device.

Ridership will determine a successful number, he said.

“We don’t know what the right number is exactly for Missoula,” said Weiss. “We need to give a little bit of room to be flexible with the company when it comes so we can promote the successful launch when that happens.”

The system would likely see a dock of bikes and scooters placed strategically around the community. A rider can use a phone to unlock a device and ride it to another location, where it’s returned to another dock.

The rider is generally charged by the minute.

“Seattle has 10,000 on the streets right now and they’re not obnoxious there – they’re not littered everywhere,” said Weiss. “We’re trying to set guidelines in the ordinance that sets clear expectations for the relationship between the city and company without specifying before they even get here. If we’re too strict from the outset, they may not want to come, or they won’t be successful when they get there.”

The council proved largely supportive of the measure, barring a few lingering concerns. The dock systems can’t impair ADA accessibility, and insurance requirements can’t fall upon the city.

Seasonal use and blackout dates would likely be left to the company based on practices in other cold-weather climates, such as Minneapolis. One interested company based in Bozeman would likely remove the system from November through March.

“What it comes down to is this is change and people fear change,” said council member Heather Harp. “As we contemplate the contract with one or two companies that come forward, it would benefit us all if we had the opportunity to actually give these a chance.”

Council member Jesse Ramos agreed, saying the system is successful in the cities he’s recently visited.

“The companies aren’t going to just throw 500 scooters in Missoula if there’s not a market for it. They’re in business to make money,” he said. “The free market will ultimately figure out what’s best. In larger cities, it was amazing how well these work.”

While the city braces for the inevitability of a dockless bike system, it’s also looking to get ahead of regulations governing electronically assisted bikes and scooters in general, including where they can be ridden and what speeds are allowed.

E-bikes generally fall into three categories, and proposed city rules would allow Class 1 and 2 vehicles where regular bicycles are currently allowed, including commuter trails. Class 2 bikes top out at roughly 20 mph, while Class 1 bikes are slower and rely more heavily on pedal power.

But Class 3 bikes can reach speeds of 28 mph and aren’t considered bicycles by the state. As a result, they would be forbidden on city trails and restricted to the streets.

Some members of council expressed reluctance by allowing any class of e-bike on a city trail.

“I feel like we’ve glossed over the capabilities of some of these vehicles,” said council member John DiBari, who expressed concerns over closing speeds. “This is why I’m working hard to draw specific boundaries over where and how we allow the electronic versions of these things. We need to be more specific around where we have electrically assisted vehicles and think carefully about how we do it.”

Council member Jordan Hess said state law has already made that distinction.

“The line is drawn between classes 2 and 3 instead of classes 1 and 2,” he said. “Having ridden both types of vehicles, Class 1 and 2 are still both very participatory. There’s a threshold, but I’m just not sure you and I would set it at the same level.”

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the issues on June 17.