Not so cutting edge: Missoula City Council pulls the plug on e-bike share system

While scooters didn’t make the cut, members of the City Council gave preliminary approval Wednesday to allow electric bicycles on primary commuter trails and sidewalks in certain parts of Missoula.

At the same time, the council – known to be on the cutting edge of social trends – tabled a parallel ordinance that would have permitted a private vendor to establish a dockless e-bike share system in the city.

“The concerns about a bike-share program were how you mitigate the impacts of a bike-share program,” said council member Jordan Hess. “This gives us time to do what we’re doing, which is to continue following the industry.”

The move disappointed advocates of increasing non-motorized transportation options in Missoula, including Hess and Ben Weiss, the city’s transportation policy coordinator.

Weiss, who crafted the legislation, eliminated the use of electric scooters from the language, even though three companies had already submitted applications to conduct business in Missoula.

That left Weiss and other advocates hoping the council would adopt an ordinance allowing for an electric bike-share program. But the elimination of scooters wasn’t enough to sway the body, which ultimately tabled the measure.

“These shared-mobility companies are helping cities move the dial and change people’s travel habits,” Weiss said. “When you provide options to people, they use it. I would ask you to keep those mode-split goals in mind and how you achieve them.”

Members of the council said public comment had lined up against the use of electric scooters, though it saw support for electric bikes. But how to implement a dockless bike program remained beyond the council’s reach.

The issue faced a number of snags, including use of the public right of way for docking stations, an appropriate fee to conduct business in the right of way, safety concerns and other factors. The council opted to let the technology evolve and let other cities “be on the cutting edge of figuring this out.”

“The restaurants we allow to use the sidewalk space during the summer months, those are business that are paying property taxes and a real store front they’re paying for,” said council member Julie Merritt. “This would be something that doesn’t have any of that. I would personally like to see the permit fee they’re paying for be in relation to the real estate they’re taking up.”

Hess, one of the council’s leading advocates for non-motorized transportation, believes electric bikes could help the city achieve its mode-split goals in ways regular bicycles may not.

According to recent city data, roughly 6.4 percent of Missoulians commute by bike. The figure exceeds the state and national average and has increased every year, though it still falls short of the city’s mode-split goals listed in the Long Range Transportation Plan.

“Something like an electric bike could really turn a lot of people on the fringe of commuting actively into more full-time active commuters,” Hess said. “This can truly transform the way people get around. We can turn two-car households into one-car households and do a lot of things on electric bicycles that meet our policy objectives.”

While the council tabled the dockless bike system, it did pass an ordinance allowing Class 1 and 2 electrically assisted bikes to run on primary commuter trails, so long as the use is “reasonable and prudent” under existing conditions.

Electric bikes also may be ridden on city sidewalks outside the Central Business District, but only under human propulsion. A public hearing on that measure is set for August.

“I agree that a bike, motorized or not, is a vehicle,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “But we have a system of commuter trails where I think it’s important to include that mode of transportation in order to make it effective.”

Electric scooters would remain illegal on trails and the public right of way.

“That’s the status quo,” Weiss said. “We’re not proposing a change there.”

Still, Weiss urged the council to keep an open mind if and when it opts to revisit the dockless system, be it for electric bicycles or scooters, “or whatever the next wave of technology brings.”

“Scooters are not the final thing, but the final thing we see might look less like a known vehicle or device and more like something we can’t imagine yet,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to just rely on existing modes and existing rules. We will have to be creative.”