Warren Cormack, MJLST Staffer
In the summer of 2018, the city of Minneapolis began a pilot project to introduce 600 electric rental scooters, primarily to the downtown area. The city approved operations for Jump, Lyft, Spin, and Lime in 2019. Two thousand scooters were slated to hit the Minneapolis streets, but the companies deployed less than one thousand to Minneapolis for much of the 2019 season. Still, half a year ago, ride-share scooters from the 2019 authorization could be found all over the streets of Minneapolis and users “racked up about 225,000 rides.”
Minneapolis is a city with a strong winter biking tradition. Yet in February, with winter in full swing, electric scooters are nowhere to be seen. What happened?
The short answer is that Minneapolis’ second pilot program for electric scooters ended in November 2019. When we dig deeper, though, some interesting dynamics affect the use of electric scooters in winter.
Though scooter companies initially targeted warm-weather cities, now colder cities like Milwaukee, Boston, and Minneapolis face challenges associated with operating electric scooters in colder weather. For example, when snow emergencies hit, cities may have to ask companies to remove scooters from the roads.
An important concern for cities is safety. This was a major reason why Minneapolis ended the 2019 scooter pilot in late November. Minneapolis scooter companies agreed that 6 to 10 inches of snow was too much to operate safely. Scooter companies are already being sued for the injuries that they cause, and the odds that someone might injure themselves while riding on snowy ground is higher than when the streets are clear. Still, scooter companies have shown a desire to keep their scooters running unless a winter storm hits.
Though Denver’s weather is not as cold as Minneapolis, it does snow there. Denver’s scooters arrived in May 2018 and the city regulated their numbers within two months. Still, the city did not regulate the months within which the scooters would be available for use. A spokeswoman for Denver Public Works reportedly said: “I think riders are going to have to make their own choices if they want to ride an electric scooter in the winter months.” Denver’s comparable warmth may affect how the city balances safety concerns.
The cold weather is not only an issue for riders. “Scooter companies are still learning how their vehicles perform in various weather conditions and from regular use.” Scooters generally either operate on bike lanes or sidewalks. In either location, the small wheels and limited batteries of scooters can negatively impact their winter-weather suitability. The major scooter models currently in use have minimum operating temperatures of fourteen degrees Fahrenheit. Possibly in response to the limits of popular scooters, Bird (one of the major scooter companies) designed a scooter with more battery and pronounced tire treads. Tier is another company developing scooters that can handle cold weather. The effects of winter may be over-hyped, however. According to a scooter expert, scooters may become slower during the winter, but the cold does not damage their battery.
A final winter issue is simply a lack of riders. Even for European scooter companies that operate throughout the year, about half of the riders stop riding during the winter. Minneapolis data also reflect a roughly 50% decrease from summer’s peak to November. College riders leave home for winter break, prompting companies to reduce the number of deployed scooters. A lack of winter riders caused Lime to ramp down operations in Milwaukee. Though riders in relatively snowy cities like Denver have found that people use scooters through the winter, scooter companies facing higher maintenance costs and lower ridership may be wise to reduce their fleet size.
Scooters may leave for the winter due to safety, maintenance, or lower ridership. This may be caused by city policy or by the companies themselves. If the companies continue to make their scooters more capable of enduring the winter, cities may begin to find themselves at odds with electric scooter companies’ desire to stay open for business.