Cars have long been the transportation mode of choice for commuters in metro areas across the country.
But the rise of the sharing economy in recent years has caused a shift, giving way to on-demand ridesharing services and micromobility, including bikeshare systems and most recently dockless electric scooters.
Milwaukee is no different.
Local bike share nonprofit Bublr launched in 2013 with ten stations in downtown Milwaukee and has since grown to include 88 stations and 700 bikes in Milwaukee, West Allis, Wauwatosa and Shorewood. And plans are in the works to expand by an additional 26 stations and 50 bicycles in 2020.
Last summer, Santa Monica, California-based Bird became the first company to introduce electric scooter rentals to the Milwaukee market.
Its initial 100-scooter fleet wasn’t on the streets for long before the city of Milwaukee filed a lawsuit against Bird just two weeks after its launch, arguing the vehicles were illegal to operate under state law.
One year later — after the city agreed to work with Bird and the lawsuit was settled — Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a bill authorizing dockless motorized scooters on Wisconsin roads.
Scooters officially returned to Milwaukee’s streets on July 23 when the city launched its dockless scooter pilot study. Current participating operators Bird, Lime and Spin have each deployed 350 scooters that can be operated within the city limits.
Although e-scooters have taken Milwaukee by storm, they don’t pose a threat to Bublr — the area’s original shared micromobility option, according to that program’s executive director James Davies.
“We’re supportive of anything that is another option to help get people out of cars,” Davies said. “Part of our mission is getting people on bikes, getting people out of cars and so we don’t really see the scooters as conflicting with that.”
It’s only been a couple months since scooters popped up in Milwaukee, but Bublr’s ridership so far hasn’t felt an impact, Davies said.
Instead of seeing the scooters as competition, Davies said he has considered how Bublr could partner with scooter operators to make transportation easier for users.
Both modes of microbility are working toward similar goals, with reduced car ridership at the top of the list.
“Ultimately, we think our biggest competitor is the car,” said Nico Probst, director of government relations at San Francisco-based scooter operator Lime.
The company has deployed its bright green scooters in 28 states and 29 countries and recently celebrated 100 million rides, all in the name of creating “more livable cities,” Probst said.
He said air pollution from cars is not only a detriment to the environment, but also to people’s health— especially in low-income communities where asthma and lung disease rates are high.
But Probst is hopeful electric scooters will help disrupt the current state of transportation.
“That’s a trend that every city is really going to have to think about as cities get more and more urbanized and folks continue to move into denser of a population as time goes along,” he said. “We’re really going to think about how we grapple with transportation at large and how that affects the city that we live in.”
And in a city where there are now several modes of alternative transportation, Lime is just one piece of the larger puzzle.
Scooters are often touted as a solution to the first-mile or last-mile issue. Lime’s global average trip distance is 1.3 miles and more than 40% of its total users have utilized a scooter to access public transit, Probst said.
With 80% of its stations located near public transit stops, including Milwaukee County Transit System, The Hop and Amtrak, Bublr is also positioned to serve that last-mile need, Davies said.
Unlike scooters, biking is a more physical activity, which is a huge draw for Bublr users, Davies said, citing user surveys.
“I think a lot of people would love to be more active and I think that’s something Bublr provides,” Davies said. “If you’re going someplace anyway and it works, Bublr is an active transportation option to get there.”
Similar to other bikeshare systems across the country, Bublr has responded to recent demand for adaptive options. The organization late this summer, with the city of Milwaukee, launched its fully integrated adaptive bike pilot program, unveiling a fleet of new trikes and handcycles at various stations in Milwaukee.
“A lot of other cities partner with bike shops and made the bikes available for rental during business hours, but here’s the work of Milwaukee’s advocacy community who made it clear they want these bikes to be available just like all the other bikes are available,” Davies said.
From a city government perspective, whether it’s a bikeshare, a streetcar or a dockless scooter system, any additional means of connection is seen as progress.
“We see many positives in providing more (transportation) options, related to economic development, access to opportunity via school or jobs, improved health outcomes,” said Mike Amsden, multimodal transportation manager at the city’s Department of Public Works and a member of the team overseeing the dockless scooter pilot study.
He said demand for alternative modes of transportation will ultimately help create safer streets as new infrastructure is put in place. For example, protected bike lanes were recently created for bikers and scooter riders.
“That’s on us to try and really build out those connected networks so people do have a way to get around,” Amsden said.
The scooter pilot study, which will come to a close at the year’s end, will help measure that demand, said Kate Riordan, associate transportation planner at DPW and the pilot’s project manager.
From the program’s launch through late September, more than 252,356 scooter rides had been taken among the three scooter operators in Milwaukee, which Riordan said is a strong showing.
The program got off to a rocky start with initial complaints of sidewalk riding and parking issues, but both rider behavior and public feedback have since improved, she said.
DPW recently launched an online survey aimed at gathering public reaction to scooters in Milwaukee and gauging support for development of a permanent program.
Based on those results, as well as ridership numbers and other community feedback, the city will determine next steps likely sometime in early 2020, Amsden said.
Milwaukee is not dissimilar from other cities in its cautious approach to its newest micromobility system, Probst said. It’s not only a new technology, but it disrupts longstanding transportation norms.
“We know that in any city we launch, it is going to take some time both for riders and non-riders to get comfortable with this,” Probst said. “I think this initial couple month period is certainly showcasing data to them that the usage is very high, there are lots of trips happening on a daily basis and then there are some great opportunities to expand upon that.”