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Change is hard. "New" is scary. Skepticism is natural. And progress almost never, unfortunately, happens in a straight line.
So here we find ourselves, a rejuvenated city on a great lake, wrestling with what to do about a convenient, sustainable alternative to fighting traffic at the dawn of the electric scooter era. Lost amid the howling from a few city officials that motorized scooters are clearly out of bounds and must be taken off the street "right-now-this-very-second or else" is a simple reality.
Motorized scooters, like Birds, are neither defined nor prohibited by Wisconsin or Milwaukee law.
The last time anyone weighed in on anything close to this type of transportation alternative, our imaginations couldn’t fathom the technology that is at our fingertips today, because it was 2005. The very notion of an affordable and environmentally-friendly alternative to fighting traffic, shareable and accessible through smartphones, was inconceivable.
Now, it isn’t the tech that allows us to get from point A to point B that’s unfathomable. It’s the knee jerk reaction and insistence on saying "no" that doesn’t make any sense.
The City of Milwaukee is evolving all the time, including with the launch this fall of fixed light rail and dockless bicycle share. With these types of "new" on the horizon, it’s even harder to understand how dead set against dockless scooter share some seem when scooters will complement an integrated transportation system.
Even if the City can’t bring itself to say "yes" right now, it is hard to see the logic in rushing to "no." There is no reason to ban scooters from city streets while seeking clarification from the State of Wisconsin as to whether or not electric scooters are exempt from motor vehicle registration in the same way that bicycles and motor bicycles are.
Those once novel transit alternatives are in no way materially different than electric scooters. And the benefits to clarifying state law and embracing an alternative are many. Electric scooters reduce carbon emissions by cutting down on car traffic and make it easier to embrace the city’s public transit network. Scooters are more convenient than bicycles for many women.
The first vendor to offer shared, dockless scooters also comes with a windfall for the City’s coffers. Bird offers to share revenue with local government to the tune of $1 per vehicle per day to build more bike lanes, promote safe riding and maintain shared infrastructure. Given the state of our roads and hurdles placed in the way of generating local revenue, this point alone should compel city leaders to embrace Bird and their competitors.
The economic benefit to the City doesn’t end there. Electric scooters require charging and maintenance, which means jobs for local residents who can now participate in the same "gig" economy that has provided economic opportunity to Uber and Lyft drivers.
For a City committed to moving into the future with new, alternative transportation options, change has been hard. There have been fits and false starts. But there has also been a steady march towards progress, toward a community that embraces the "new" without losing its identity and important ties to the past.
Dockless, shared electric scooters may not represent the same degree of progress that the advent of the internal combustion engine did, but they do represent progress. While that progress may never move in a straight line, and very real concerns like safety and indemnity need to be clarified, that’s no excuse for saying "no" without first having a meaningful dialogue and working with partners at the state level to find a way to get to "yes."
That should be our posture. Embracing change even if at first blush it looks scary. Moving beyond our skepticism to openness. Working together. Welcoming progress, even if we didn’t see it coming.