Electric scooters are heading back to Lafayette, two years after vendors suddenly dropped hundreds of their rentable vehicles on city streets and sidewalks in an unregulated free-for-all that led to a local ban.

This time around, city-parish officials and at least one vendor are collaborating on an operating framework to prevent a repeat of late 2018 and early 2019, when the rented scooters were randomly strewn about town on a nightly basis. But key details about the use of “shared mobility devices” are yet to be determined, and it is not clear when they will again be available.

“It’s really kind of high in the sky right now. We’ve got all these ideas floating up there and now we need to start deciding which ones we are going to pull down and put into practice,” said Mary Sliman, the city-parish development director who is heading up the new SMD Management Committee.

The former City-Parish Council banned electric scooters in 2019, amid outcry over pedestrian safety and obstructions to rights of way. Riders rented the scooters at all hours, left them wherever they pleased and zoomed in and out downtown sidewalk traffic. The scooters appeared overnight in sudden fashion, with vendors not consulting city-parish officials beforehand.

“Last time it was a total mess,” said Anita Begnaud, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority. “When these scooters are riding down the sidewalks, there are businesses whose doors literally open out on to the sidewalk.”

Still, many saw promise in the new mode of public transportation, assuming it could be provided in an orderly fashion. Some downtown business owners saw increased sales, with the scooters encouraging more people willing to visit more than one establishment on a night out, Begnaud said.

The city and parish councils rescinded the ban in July, replacing it with an ordinance meant to establish rules for operating electric scooters and bicycles. Under the new ordinance, vendors apply for permits and pay a per-vehicle annual permit fee of $120, which was reduced in the final version from $175 in an earlier draft.

Sliman said she did not know why the fee was reduced. Additional queries to the administration and legal department were not answered.

The ordinance also limits operation hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and requires parking in designated areas. Riders are not allowed to interfere with any sidewalk traffic, and riding on downtown sidewalks is prohibited altogether. Violations can result in permit revocation and impoundment.

But it is unclear how violations will be reported, or how the downtown sidewalk ban can be enforced. Parking areas, usage boundaries and other key details are left to the seven-member management committee, which represents city-parish administration, Lafayette Police, UL and the Downtown Development Authority.

“We are kind of getting the mulligan, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to set a stronger foundation,” Begnaud said. “There is a lack of trust because of how things were managed last time. It’s on the vendors to prove how they are going to operate differently than they did in the past.”

At least one vendor, Bird, seems to be taking a different approach, by working with the city-parish set up a program that is mutually beneficial. A Bird representative attended the committee’s meeting on Oct. 7, as the committee and other community members contemplated the scope of the program.

A transportation planner in Fort Collins, Colo., where Bird won an exclusive contract as part of a pilot program, said the company has worked well with the city.

“They are looking for every way possible to accommodate our requests while still trying to maintain their bottom line,” said Amanda Mansfield, the Fort Collins transportation planner. “This is an important market to them, and they act like it. They listen and do what we ask.”

One of the Lafayette committee’s first objectives is to set up geographic boundaries where scooters and other shared mobility devices — such as electric bicycles — can operate. Vendors typically ensure riders adhere to those boundaries with geofencing technology, which uses GPS to control operability and speed depending on location.

But geofencing depends on GPS accuracy, which may be good enough to generally keep riders out of certain geographic areas, but is less reliable for precise distinctions between, for example, streets and sidewalks.

“No operator has been able to do that. I definitely want to caution you,” said the Bird representative, Servando Esparza, addressing committee members.

In an interview, Esparza said riders tend to follow clearly stated rules, which he said Bird would consistently enforce through its user app. Additionally, Bird is open to helping pay for signage and other expenses related to the company’s services, he said.

“We have a program in Miami where part of the fees go in to bike lanes. They are putting that money to use,” Esparza said. “It really is up to the city.”

Another open question is the number of scooters that are appropriate for Lafayette. Esparza told the committee that Bird deployed between 250 and 300 scooters in Lafayette two years ago. He said he was not with the company at that time and does not know how the fleet size was determined.

Esparza recommended a flexible approach that allows city-parish officials to adjust up or down as needed. He said Miami requires devices to average three rides per day before allowing vendors to expand their fleets.

In Fort Collins, which is comparable in population to Lafayette and is also home to Colorado State University, officials monitor demand by observing parking stations seem to attract the highest use. Riders are required to take photos of the parked vehicles after each use, said Mansfield, the Fort Collins transportation planner.

At the same time, Mansfield said the city also tries to ensure that “stations are distributed with an interest in equity and providing access to the community, and not just in the downtown and college area.”

“I don’t think there should be an arbitrary max (fleet size). I think our focus, and people’s focus in general, should be what are you seeing on the ground?,” Mansfield said.

Fort Collins will likely continue working with an exclusive vendor after a new request for proposals is issued next year, she said. That arrangement is more enticing for vendors, she said, and is also easier for the city to manage. Multiple vendors could create a “wild west” competitive atmosphere, she said.

“We didn’t want to be in a situation where we were trying to discipline companies for doing things outside what they were allowed to do, just to get a leg up,” she said.

Exclusivity is not contemplated in the new ordinance in Lafayette, where patience for any bad behavior on the part of vendors is already limited.

“People have not forgotten how bad it was the last time around,” Begnaud said. “It’s on the vendors to prove how they are going to operate differently than they did in the past.”

Acadiana Business Today: For electric scooters in Lafayette, a 'mulligan' and questions yet to be answered


Email Ben Myers at bmyers@theadvocate.com. Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.