Electric scooter sharing startups eye Chicago for expansion

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CHICAGO — First it was ride sharing, then bike sharing, and if talks with city and state leaders go well this winter, electric scooter sharing could be next in Chicago.

Dockless electric scooters allow users to find and ride them using a smartphone app, and then leave them parked at their destination when they are done. Sam Reed, a director with the scooter company Bird, says scooters offer safety, lower traffic congestion and are environmentally-friendly.

"If you can ride a bike, you can ride a Bird," Reed said. "Anytime we can get somebody out of a car and into an alternative mode of transportation, the streets will be safer."

Already available in 100 markets, Reed and the California-based Bird are hoping they can swoop into the Windy City next. Using Bird scooters is relatively simple: an app shows where the nearest scooters are, a QR code unlocks one, and users can ride them for $1 to start and 20 cents a minute after that. When they're done, users just hop off and park them nearby.

"We instruct people to park it out of the way of pedestrians, right of ways, not blocking entrances to businesses, handicapped ramps those sorts of things; we require users to take a picture before they’re allowed to end their ride," Reed said.

Users must be at least 18 years old, and rides end each day at 9 p.m. At night, charging teams pick up the scooters to charge them, do a safety check and redistribute the scooters. Reed argues they're especially city-friendly, since 30 Birds can fit in one parking space, and many more people can fit together in a bike lane than could fit in a traditional lane of traffic.

So why aren't flocks of Birds - and scooters from their rival Lime - already swarming the streets of Chicago? Several cities like Norfolk, VA and Beverly Hills, CA have impounded the scooters and fined the companies for un-permitted deployment. Others, like Ventura, CA and Cleveland, OH have outright bans on dockless scooters, as city leaders complain of people riding on sidewalks and blocking right of ways. There's even an Instagram page dedicated to scooter users behaving badly.

"When we first come into a community we’re highly visible, people are really excited, but cities often struggle with where to fit us because we are so new. The dockless feature has what I would refer to as some, 'side effects,' Reed said.

To reduce those side effects, Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno (D-1st Ward) and scooter supporter introduced an ordinance to outline rules and regulations,  including parking guidelines. Chicago’s Department of Transportation, the City Council and the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection are working to develop framework for the industry.

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