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Madison could impound electric scooters from scofflaw motorized scooter companies

August 3, 2018

Motorized scooters, like those that have frustrated officials in U.S. cities nationwide recently, could be impounded in Madison if a new ordinance proposal is passed.

Potentially regulating the scooters — and companies that operate them like Bird and Lime — come as cities like Milwaukee have scrambled to address electric scooter use after companies have suddenly left a fleet of them in their cities. Madison’s proposal is similar to one passed in Milwaukee earlier this week.

Since there’s no indication that a company such as Bird or Lime is about to unload a fleet of the two-wheeled rides in Madison, the proposal is a warning about the potential consequences of prematurely starting operations in the city.

The scooters are illegal under Wisconsin law, according to the Madison City Attorney’s Office. The city drafted its proposal in case the state legalizes their use, said Madison Police Chief Mike Koval.

“In the interim, any prospective flock of these devices will have to choose a place to roost that does not include the City of Madison,” he said in a blog post Thursday.

Under the proposal, any motorized scooters found operating in the city could be impounded.

The ordinance would prohibit the parking and use of “dockless motorized scooter systems” on Madison streets and sidewalks unless state law changes to allow their operation.

Koval said a draft ordinance would “set out the framework within which a company would have to operate in the City of Madison.”

If legalized at the state level, any “dockless motorized scooter systems” company wishing to operate in Madison would have to participate in a city pilot program and be authorized by the city.

The ordinance was sponsored by Mayor Paul Soglin and Ald. Ledell Zellers, 2nd District.

The proposal will be introduced at the City Council meeting on Tuesday. It could be voted on as soon as September, said Assistant City Attorney Amber McReynolds.

Easy to rent

While electric scooters aren’t new, companies have started placing fleets of them in cities for anybody to use with a few swipes on a smartphone app.

In the proposal, dockless motorized scooters are defined as being two-wheeled tandem vehicles with T-shaped handlebars available to be used by individuals on a temporary basis.

Users of Bird or Lime scooters can download an app on their phone, use it to find one of that company’s scooters, quickly rent it and then drop it off wherever they want when done with it.

Although unlocking and using a scooter might be cheap and convenient for a rider, fleets of electric scooters zooming around Madison — especially in Downtown and near the UW-Madison campus — could pose problems for officials.

“Are we prepared to come to grips what this could mean?” Koval said in an interview Thursday.

Parts of Madison, such as State Street and other areas Downtown, are already crowded with foot, bicycle, moped, vehicle and bus traffic, Koval said. Mixing in scooter traffic or randomly parked scooters could worsen the congestion and make the area more dangerous.

He said he recently rented a Lime scooter while on a trip to Oakland — and enjoyed using it.

“I have to admit,” Koval said. “I can’t say that I didn’t like it.”

But he said details like safety requirements, where the scooters can be used and where they can be parked need to be established before they are allowed in Madison.

The law

If a motorized scooter company wants to operate in Madison legally the scooters will need to be legalized by the state first, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Electric scooters are considered motor vehicles, according to the city. Koval said since the scooters don’t meet federal safety requirements, they can’t be registered in Wisconsin and be operated on roads or sidewalks.

It’s also illegal to park the scooters on a road or sidewalk, Koval said in his blog.

Users of the scooters could be fined $98.80 for operating an unregistered motor vehicle, among other potential violations.

Bird and Lime, two of the most prominent motorized scooter sharing companies, didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.

In Milwaukee, where Bird scooters can be impounded as of Tuesday, the company has said Wisconsin laws don’t apply because the federal government doesn’t consider the scooters to be motor vehicles, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

In the early 2000s, Segway company officials successfully lobbied state legislators to legalize the use of their vehicle on roads and sidewalks. Segway vehicles are two-wheeled, non-tandem, self-balancing vehicles.

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