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Firm sizes up Middlebury for e-scooters

A COMPANY CALLED Bird Rides Inc. is looking to offer a fleet of e-scooters in Middlebury, perhaps as soon as next spring.

Middlebury is “going to have a whole spectrum of e-cycles — bikes, scooters, vehicles. We have to teach people how to navigate those together."— Laura Asermily

MIDDLEBURY — A national company is seeking permission to establish a “stand-up electric scooter sharing system” in the town of Middlebury, beginning with a one-year trial that would likely begin next spring.

The idea is that anyone with a smart phone app could grab one of the scooters at any time of day and rent it for a short period of time to zoom to appointments and errands around town. When the errand is done, the user would just leave the scooter for the next person.

The proposal comes from Bird Rides Inc., which has created e-scooter sharing systems in more than 200 cities throughout the world, according to Bird Rides Senior Manager Jeremy Lynch, who’s making the pitch to bring Middlebury into the fold.

Bird scooters used in Middlebury would weigh around 44 pounds, have handlebars, front light, flashing brake lights and an electric motor that can propel the machine at a speed of up to 20 mph, though the rider has the option of using “human power,” according to the company’s literature.

Under the direction of a local fleet manager and an as-yet undetermined local businessperson, Bird hopes to provide Middlebury with 50-75 scooters, mixing them in gradually as demand arises and as the town “becomes comfortable with this new form of transportation,” according to a proposed contract.

Lynch said Bird has launched in 110 cities so far this year. He estimated there’d be no more than 35-40 scooters on the road at the same time in Middlebury.

He said the company would strive to “avoid areas where we know there are going to be some problems, only allowing access to riders in small areas of town where we know (the service) is going to be used to its fullest.”

The electric scooters would be made available for rent from 5 a.m. to midnight. Users would download an app on their smartphone to find the closest machine, and reserve it up to 30 minutes in advance. The rider is given a code to scan with the app to start their ride.

A parking portal is used on the app to identify and map locations of units and the town line/route limits — all preapproved and part of the agreement with the town.

The machines are to be parked in the “furniture zone” of approved sidewalks, “beside a bike rack or another area specifically designated for bicycle parking, or on the street next to an unmarked curb,” reads the Bird literature.

 “To the extent the company desires to stage stand-up electric scooters in areas other than the public right-of-way, (Bird) must first obtain the right to do so from the appropriate city department, property owner, or public agency,” reads the proposed contract with Middlebury.

As a participant, Middlebury would receive 15 cents per ride to help fund “protected bike lanes or other transportation projects within the operating areas,” according to the proposed pact.

The company stipulates that:

•  Riders must be 18 or older and are required to watch a safety tutorial around use, liabilities and (possibly) rules specific to the town.

•  Scooters should be operated in the right of street lanes and must offer the right of way to bicycles on bike lanes and bike paths.

•  Helmets are encouraged for all users.

•  Bird would provide education to scooter riders using the town’s existing rules and regulations, while encouraging safe and courteous riding and proper parking.

Bird would maintain a 24-hour customer service for customers to report safety concerns, complaints, or to ask questions, according to Lynch.

While Bird is a for-profit company, it proclaims an altruistic vision that includes reducing the community’s carbon footprint while potentially cutting motor vehicle traffic in the downtown.

TOWN GOES SLOW

Lynch proposed launching Middlebury’s Bird scooter system this fall, but the town selectboard last week said it wants to learn more about the company, its products and how the e-scooters have been received in other municipalities. The board has told Lynch a spring 2022 launch might be more realistic.

The Middlebury Public Health & Safety Committee reviewed the Bird proposal on June 28, but didn’t advance a recommendation to the selectboard.

Selectboard member Heather Seeley said she’d like that panel to officially weigh in, and also solicit feedback from downtown groups like the Better Middlebury Partnership.

Resident Laura Asermily, a former Middlebury selectboard member, said she’s tried the e-scooter, calling it “fun” and “very efficient.” She urged the selectboard to schedule a Bird Rides presentation and demo to get the public better informed about the e-scooter system.

“E-scooters are going to come,” Asermily said of the transition to more environmentally sound forms of transportation. “The town of Middlebury is going to need to plan for them anyway. We’re going to have a whole spectrum of e-cycles — bikes, scooters, vehicles. We have to teach people how to navigate those together.”

Selectman Nick Artim travels extensively as a consultant in the fire protection field. He said he’s seen e-scooters in action.

“The vast majority of people I see using these things do it quite respectfully,” he said. “With a review, I think it could make these work quite well.”

But not everyone is sold.

Resident Michael Reeves told the board he doesn’t think e-scooters would fit into the character of Middlebury. He said he’s concerned about the machines being randomly parked, causing clutter.

“I know there are rules about how these vehicles are supposed to be operated, but I’ve been in communities where these scooters have been driven on sidewalks, people are not wearing helmets, they’re driving them when they’re under the influence,” Reeves said. “There are a lot of risks to these vehicles being in town.”

He urged the selectboard to solicit feedback from Montpelier, which had an e-scooter system.

“It wasn’t universally positive,” he said of the experience. “There are pros and cons to this.”

John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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