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Milwaukee’s Common Council OKs Bird scooter ordinance that stops short of city ban

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Don’t call it a ban.

But Bird scooters could soon be impounded by the city under an ordinance approved overwhelmingly Tuesday by the Milwaukee Common Council.

This means the city could legally impound scooters and Bird would need to pay $100 each to recover them. But residents would likely not be fined for riding any scooters left out on the streets, so long as they do not drive recklessly.

Language directly prohibiting motorized scooters was removed from the city’s ordinance under a last-minute move by Mayor Tom Barrett and Ald. Bob Bauman, the plan’s sponsor. 

The “softening up” of language appears to serve two functions: to shift the focus of the Bird dispute from the city to the state, and to allow for legal use of the scooters in Milwaukee should the state take action.

Bauman said the language changes in the ordinance were “basically to make it sound less harsh — the effect is the same.”

But he insisted that he has no problems with scooters in general — and may even try riding one if they become legal.

“We’re not anti-scooter. We’re in favor of enforcing laws in a fair and equitable manner,” Bauman said. “Personally, I have no problem with motorized scooters. I have a problem with a company that basically ignores the city’s role as a referee of the public right-of-way, and just comes in here and does things without any discussion, any forewarning.”

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Barrett and Bauman stressed that the scooters are illegal under state law, and it’s up to the state, not the city, to legalize them. 

The scooters could become legal if the Legislature or state officials take action. The council also unanimously passed a resolution urging the state to legalize scooters, signaling their willingness to give the scooters a chance.

In response to the Common Council’s move, a Bird spokesperson maintained the scooters were legal under federal law.

“The City of Milwaukee passed an ordinance today giving local law enforcement authority to impound e-scooters being operated as ‘motor vehicles’ based on an interpretation of state law,” the spokesperson wrote. “However, the Federal Government motor vehicle safety regulator NHTSA has affirmatively stated that scooters like those offered by Bird are not ‘motor vehicles.'”

They continue, “We look forward to continuing our work with the city of Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin to resolve this matter and provide the people of Wisconsin our clean energy solution for short distance trips.”

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The immediate response to the city measure was confusion over how aggressively it would be enforced.

The proposal passed by a 12 to 2 vote. Alds. Tony Zielinski and Khalif Rainey voted “no” on the measure, with Zielinksi raising concerns over how the city responded to Bird representatives. 

“My understanding is that Bird attended a Public Works Committee meeting to speak …. (and) they were not afforded the opportunity to do so,” said Zielinski, a 2020 mayoral candidate. 

“We should have open communication with the company,” he added. “It’s critical that we have a transparent, open government system.”

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The proposal now heads to Barrett for his consideration.

Bird fans chirp their protest

About a dozen protesters showed up in support of Bird scooters at City Hall. 

Led by two Bird representatives, they held up colorful posters outside of City Hall and chanted, “Don’t ban Bird!” and “Save our scooters!”

Brothers Borna and Sina Riazi, who live in Menomonee Falls, were among the crowd of protestors to support Bird. 

“We’ve here to the save the Birds!” said Sina, 17.

“I just really like riding Bird scooters,” said Borna, 19.

Borna called them an efficient way to get to work, and added that he likes riding them with friends.

A path to legality

Barrett on Monday called on the state to make motorized scooters like Bird legal.

“I’m supportive of transportation options, whether it’s good local streets, good freeways, good Bublr Bikes, a good streetcar system and good scooters. You can throw Segways in there,” Barrett told the Journal Sentinel. “The issue here is that state law does not permit them currently.”

Barrett said he also supports a pilot study conducted by the city when and if the state makes them legal.

“We want the state to allow these to be legal,” the mayor added, “The city isn’t the one to make them legal.”

Aldermen have raised safety concerns as well as legality issues. If someone were injured while riding one of the scooters, it’s not clear who would be held responsible — Bird, the rider or the city. 

The word on Bird

Deputy City Attorney Adam Stephens issued Bird a cease-and-desist letter June 28, just days after they began operations. When Bird refused to budge, Stephens responded by filing a lawsuit against the scooter-share company July 6.

RELATED: Milwaukee residents continue to dodge $100 citations as Bird scooter use spikes

RELATED: Milwaukee police issue ticket to Bird rider after scooter hits pedestrian on Downer Ave.

In the lawsuit, Stephens claims the scooters are illegal under state law and the city is powerless to legalize their use. Bird disagrees, arguing the scooters are legal because they are not defined as “motor vehicles” under federal guidelines 

Bird’s dispute with Milwaukee is not an anomaly for the company, which has provoked similar responses from cities around the county, including San Francisco, Nashville, Tennessee, Miami and Denver. Its most recent location, Cambridge, Massachusetts, has deemed the scooters illegal and plans to meet with Bird representatives before taking any next steps.

As in most of these cities and despite legal conflict, Milwaukee residents have demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive response to the scooters. People can be seen zipping all around the city on the small black scooters — along Lake Michigan, through downtown and even in certain suburbs, like Shorewood.

RELATED: Bird asks Milwaukee residents to protest scooter ban at Common Council meeting

RELATED: Enjoy Bird scooters while you can, because they likely won’t be back until 2019

 

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