Najifa Farhat

(Missoula Current) Hanna Bernstein, a 24-year-old University of Montana student, has found a convenient and eco-friendly way to commute to her summer job as a waitress. Riding her electric scooter, she glides through the city streets, benefiting from the cost savings and enjoyable experience.

Reflecting on her first encounter with electric scooters in Boise, she said, "It was so fun and saved a lot of Uber money."

Impressed by her scooter experience, Bernstein purchased one herself a few months ago through Facebook Marketplace. However, she expressed a desire for a shared e-scooter service in Missoula.

"I wish we had a similar e-scooter service here,” she said. “I wouldn't have to buy them because e-scooters are expensive."

Missoula is currently exploring the introduction of shared scooters or e-bikes as part of its micromobility program.

Micromobility refers to a technology-based shared vehicle system, connecting small-scale vehicles such as pedal or electric bikes and scooters through technology. The vehicles are typically rented for short, point-to-point trips on public trails.

The city initially entertained the idea in 2018 when Lime Micromobility, a shared micromobility company, proposed its services. However, concerns about right-of-way and ADA accessibility led to its rejection at that time.

But under the city's Metropolitan Planning Organization's and its Long Range Transportation Plan, micromobility is once again a discussion. The MPO, a federally funded transportation management and planning organization, recently presented its study at the city council’s Public Works Committee meeting in May.

The council has since approved further research and a pilot project to explore the implementation of micromobility in Missoula. The MPO received proposals from Bird Scooters and the University of Montana in late 2022. Bird Scooters sought business opportunities, while the university aimed to address parking issues on campus.

"After the City Council meeting, we were directed to continue researching what a scooter share program to be introduced would look like in Missoula through a pilot program,” said Charlie Menefee, a transportation planner with the MPO.

“Part of introducing micromobility in Missoula would be using a temporary 1 to 2 year test to see how it works." Menefee said. “Now we're in that research phase, continuing discussion with stakeholders as well."

Next steps

Following the research phase, the MMPO plans to engage the public to gauge opinions on various aspects of the micromobility program, including transit system types, design and potential concerns. Menefee said the pilot project may be launched next summer once the initial steps are taken.

An e-scooter. (Bird courtesy photo)
An e-scooter. (Bird courtesy photo)

Bird, a California-based tech company, has already introduced its services in Great Falls and Bozeman and is considering Missoula as its next Montana location.

In an email, Alana Morales, the account supervisor of public affairs at Bird, highlighted Missoula's vibrant population and outdoor, active lifestyle as reasons for the city's suitability for a micromobility program.

“With the University of Montana as an integral part of the city's fabric, along with a thriving tourism industry, Missoula is a natural fit for a micromobility program,” said Morales.

The benefits of such an initiative extend beyond commuters, as downtown businesses are also expected to gain from increased foot traffic.

Bob Giordano, executive director of Missoula Free Cycles and a participant in City Council meetings on micromobility, emphasized the importance of accessibility and equity in transportation facilities.

"If we start shared micromobility that requires credit cards or credit checks or too much money, then that can have the effect to exclude certain groups of people,” said Giordano. “I think it's an important aspect to not only talk about shared mobility but how we make it accessible for the whole population."

Equal opportunities

To accommodate large-scale micromobility initiatives, Giordano stressed the need for enhanced infrastructure, including connected trails, protected bike lanes, and a neighborhood greenway system. Such improvements would ensure safer and more inclusive pathways within the existing infrastructure, he said.

The revenue generated by the operating companies would also contribute to the maintenance and operation of the municipal system. According to Menefee, the funds could be utilized for quality program operations, physical scooter corrals, parking signs, and infrastructure within parks to minimize the impact on bike parking.

To keep things equitable, Menefee stressed affordability, particularly for individuals reliant on public transportation.

"Our data and study indicate that micromobility programs can offer a great transportation resource that is affordable, especially for bus-reliant individuals or transit-reliant individuals in a broader terminology,” he said. “The primary benefit is helping low-income people get to and from daily locations of need. It could also be used to sort of increase activity in our downtown atmosphere."