Molly McCluskey is a freelance journalist covering inequality, immigration, and foreign affairs. She is the editor of CityLab’s series on raising small kids, Room to Grow.
The famously bike-friendly Colorado city has some of the best cycling infrastructure in North America. But electric scooters still aren’t welcome to use it.
BOULDER, CO—When micro-mobility companies dumped hundreds of scooters and e-bikes in cities around the country seemingly overnight, city officials in Boulder, Colorado, watched warily, expecting their famously bike-friendly city to be a target.
In nearby Denver, for example, city officials swiftly ordered Lime and Bird scooters off the streets after hundreds of the tiny shared vehicles showed up last year. Then they crafted a series of regulations determining where and how the scooters could be used, parked, and collected. “The experience from the other cities where companies just dumped e-scooters overnight—we didn’t want to be faced with that dilemma,” said Dave “DK” Kemp, Boulder’s senior transportation planner. “We’ve seen the horror stories, and we’ve seen the success stories too.”
So when the state passed legislation in May, 2019 that gave e-scooters permission to ride on the streets (removing them from the “toy vehicle” category), Kemp and others in Boulder leaped into action. Although commercial scooters weren’t yet operating in the city, the city council passed an emergency ordinance the same day that banned the issuance of commercial scooter permits within city limits. Over the next several months, the city will host a series of public forums to determine how, and if, commercial scooter-sharing should be allowed.
“To do it right, you really have to make sure your community is on board to be able to address potential problems,” Kemp said. “Because we know there are some.”
A slew of scooter companies have all expressed interest in entering Boulder. And no wonder—this is one of the bike-friendliest cities in North America. Within and immediately surrounding the city are more than 300 miles of bikeway, including 96 miles of bike lanes, 84 miles of multiuse paths, and 50 miles of designated bike routes. Within the city itself, on-street bike lanes, contra-flow bike lanes, designated bike routes, paved shoulders, multi-use paths and soft-surface paths all make up one of the most comprehensive urban bike networks in the U.S.
“We’ve been working with a number of e-bikes and scooter companies,” Mary Ann Mahoney, the CEO of the Boulder Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, told CityLab. “We have a (dockless e-bike) pilot starting in the fall, to see how it’ll work.”
But Boulder has been notably slow to embrace the charms of e-scooters. The resistance might look incongruous, given the outdoorsy Colorado town’s enthusiasm for other two-wheeled conveyances. But the region’s large and influential cyclist community has been less-than-enthusiastic about welcoming battery-powered interlopers: Legislation that gives scooters the same rights as bicycles is something that cycling advocates here say should be approached carefully, from a policy standpoint.
“I think the scooter industry, this year was their year to update definitions of vehicle codes related to their products. In other words, there’s really no legal standing for electric scooters, so they basically went state by state—30 to 35 different states—where they updated the definition of an electric scooter so that they basically have the same rights to the road as a bicycle,” Morgan Lommele, director of state and local policy for the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and the People For Bikes Coalition, which is based in Boulder but didn’t work on the Boulder bill. “What that really means is, e-scooters, unless banned from infrastructure, would be allowed wherever bikes would be allowed.”
In the broader conversation of mobility, the general camps are often divided between private cars and everything else. But in Boulder, lines are often drawn between people-powered modes, like walking and cycling, and motorized ones, which includes not only cars but also e-bikes and e-scooters.
“There are two ways to think about it,” Lommele said. “One way is human-powered, active mobility: so bicycles, walking, running, and even pedal-powered e-bikes. That would exclude electric scooters, because if you’ve been on one, you know you’re not really moving your body and getting exercise. The other way to look at it is ‘anything but a car’—any micromobility to get around, or any alternative transit, which would encompass buses, e-scooters, and bikes.”
In many cities, scooters are currently operating in something of a grey zone—often tolerated on sidewalks among pedestrians, as well as in bike lanes with traditional pedal bicycles. “The bike industry in general is kind of opposed to this blanket idea that scooters would be allowed wherever bikes would be allowed,” Lommele said. “Our position is, it needs to be a little more thoughtful than that.”
In places like Boulder, with its extensive network of on- and off-street bike trails that are heavily used by avid cyclists, adding motorized scooters to the mix might be problematic. “For a city that has the best bike infrastructure for transportation and recreation in the country, I think they’re really, really cautious about the scooters, because there are a lot of old-guard Boulderites who want Boulder the way it used to be, and that did not include scooters,” Lommele said. “They’re worried about the safety implications, and I think that’s a valid conversation to have.”
In Boulder, environmental concerns are also on par with issues of safety, planning, and permissions. While scooter companies often claim that their service offers a more greener alternative to driving, recent studies on their environmental impact are mixed. Not only are the vehicles themselves notably short-lived, thanks to vandalism, but in cities like Denver they’re driven around and collected each night, possibly offsetting claims of saved vehicle emissions.
“The general environmental concern here is much higher than in other places, and I can see some benefits of not having scooters everywhere,” Eric Budd, a local cyclist and board member of Boulder Progressives, which advocates for housing, transportation and climate initiatives, told CityLab. “The idea of these things on publicly owned land is anathema. We have a clean and well-managed city, and people don’t want to see scooters defacing public space and to have companies making a profit off of it.”
If 2018 was the year the scooter companies simply unleashed their products onto the streets of cities, unbidden, 2019 is the year that cities struck back with regulations that sought to bring scooters back under control. Cities like Nashville and Atlanta have banned commercial scooter-sharing services after complaints; other major potential markets, such as Boston, Seattle, and New York City, have never allowed them. And many others are closely monitoring pilot programs. Denver’s Dockless Mobility Pilot Permit Program was set to expire in July, but was recently extended. In the meanwhile, to align more closely with state law, the Denver Department of Public Works recommended to Denver City Council that based on observed rider behavior and resident feedback, electric scooters should be prohibited on sidewalks. “With the change approved in late August,” a Denver DPW statement said, “people on scooters now follow the same rules as people on bikes and electric bikes and should ride in the street and in bike lanes.”
It’s difficult to say whether scooters will eventually find their way to Boulder when the moratorium expires. “It depends on whether electric scooters are a trend or here to stay,” Lommele said. “If they’re a trend, [scooter companies] might just drop Boulder as a priority area. If they’re here to stay, I bet Boulder will try to find a way for people to ride them on city bike paths.”
For now, the city is content to sit out the micromobility revolution.
Kemp says that the community forums on scooters will allow the city to be deliberate in the nuances of adopting the new devices. “So often, innovation is about ‘let’s try it and see,’” he said. “And I look at innovation as being proactive and ‘let’s do this right.’”
Others aren’t convinced time will solve this debate.
“If I had to bet, given the current state of Scooterville,” Budd said, “in a year from now, we still won’t have scooters.”