Here’s why the legality of Bird scooters is up for debate

Company and City of Milwaukee interpret law differently

Bird scooters were first distributed in the Third Ward in June 2018.
Bird scooters were first distributed in the Third Ward in June 2018.

Mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles are defined as vehicles by state law and permitted to operate on state roads. But electric scooters are not.

Bird scooters were distributed in the Third Ward today.

That’s the crux of the argument between electric scooter-share company Bird Rides Inc. and the City of Milwaukee, which filed suit against the Santa Monica-based company Friday. Bird contends the lack of definition leaves room for interpretation, while the city argues it means the scooters are illegal.

Bird scooters can’t be operated legally on public roads or sidewalks because they don’t meet federal safety equipment standards for motor vehicles and are not designed for operation on roadways, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s website. Among the safety equipment required by federal guidelines is headlamps, turn signals, reflectors, rear view mirrors, brake lamps and mufflers.

A DOT spokesman declined to discuss electric scooters, saying they don’t fall under the department’s purview because they are not defined as vehicles.

“Once it crosses that threshold of being registered and licensed, then it falls under our purview,” said Michael Pyritz of the DOT.

Because they don’t meet federal safety guidelines, electric scooters cannot be registered or licensed in Wisconsin. According to the DOT site:

“Motorized scooters do not meet federal safety equipment standards for motor vehicles and are not designed for operation on roadways. Therefore, the law treats motorized scooters like lawn tractors, all-terrain vehicles, go-carts, mini-bikes and other off-road motor vehicles that are not allowed on public roads.”

And even children riding electric scooters can be penalized.

“…anyone operating a motorized scooter on a street or sidewalk without a valid driver’s license could receive a citation for operating a motor vehicle without a driver’s license. For juveniles, such a violation could result in their being ineligible for a driver’s license when they turn age 16.”

Also included in the list of equipment that can’t be operated on Wisconsin roads or sidewalks: snowmobiles, lightweight utility vehicles (such as the John Deere Gator or Kawasaki Mule), battery powered kiddie cars, golf carts and neighborhood electric vehicles, according to a DOT memo on electric scooters.

State law does allow local municipalities to permit operation of vehicles on sidewalks, but they can’t waive licensing and registration requirements for operating a motor vehicle on streets and sidewalks.

The City of Milwaukee puts it this way: “Whether defined as a vehicle (Wis. Stat. Sec. 340.01(35)), motor vehicle (Wis. Stat. Sec. 340.01(35)) or a play vehicle (Wis. Stat. Sec. 340.01(43m)), under no circumstances may motorized scooters operate on a public street because they are not designed for on-street use.”

Here are those definitions under state law:

  • “Motor vehicle” means a vehicle, including a combination of 2 or more vehicles or an articulated vehicle, which is self-propelled, except a vehicle operated exclusively on a rail. “Motor vehicle” includes, without limitation, a commercial motor vehicle or a vehicle which is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires but not operated on rails. A snowmobile, an all-terrain vehicle, a utility terrain vehicle, and an electric personal assistive mobility device shall be considered motor vehicles only for purposes made specifically applicable by statute.
  • “Play vehicle”:
    • (a) Means a coaster, skate board, roller skates, sled, toboggan, unicycle or toy vehicle upon which a person may ride.
    • (b) Does not include in-line skates.

Wendy Mantell, deputy general counsel at Bird, “respectfully disagrees” with the city on the lawfulness of its scooters, according to an email included in the lawsuit.

“Wisconsin statutes have not defined electric scooters as a class of vehicle, and state law has not regulated their use. It is clear that our scooters are designed for on-street use, just like bicycles and other mobility devices that are exempted from federal motor vehicle standards, and they should be regulated accordingly,” Mantell wrote on June 28.

She expressed a desire for the city and Bird to “work together to create regulations for electric scooters.”

Bird launched in Milwaukee June 27. The service allows users to locate the dockless Bird scooters using the company’s app. The scooters cost $1 to rent, and then 15 cents per minute. Bird charges them each night. The scooters have been controversial in several of the cities where Bird has launched because of the gray area in which it operates. In its suit, the City of Milwaukee cites several other cases in which Bird has squared off against cities where it has launched, including a $300,000 settlement with the city of Santa Monica, California.

CNN today reported Bird, which was founded in 2017 and is now in upward of 20 cities, has raised a $300 million funding round from investors and is now valued at $2 billion.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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