Only city planners would call electric scooters a type of “micromobility.” Users call them fast, functional fun.
Rochester is at the halfway mark of a four-month test period for a vendor of rentable, motorized scooters, called Lime, and with any luck, the lime-green e-scooters will pass the test and return next summer. They’re cheap, a novelty, and an entertaining way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Lime is one of at least a dozen companies trying to get a foothold in cities around the U.S. and internationally, most of them larger than Rochester. This past summer, Chicago allowed a trial period for 10 scooter vendors to show what they can do. Lime has been on the streets in four other Minnesota cities this year: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Golden Valley and Edina.
By all accounts, Rochester has climbed aboard e-scooters.
“While the specific numbers are proprietary, there has been tremendous demand for Lime in Rochester, with residents and visitors clearly excited about a new affordable and convenient way to get around the community,” said company spokesman Alex Youn.
Scooters are the most improbable new mode of transportation in a city that’s exploring any and all ways to get people in and out of downtown as part of the Destination Medical Center program. A key piece of the $5.6 billion DMC extravaganza is to get tens of thousands of Mayo Clinic workers, patients and visitors in and out of the center city every day, with fewer cars requiring fewer parking ramps.
One of the big, looming decisions for DMC, the city and Olmsted County is whether to pursue a fixed-rail streetcar system between downtown and two transit centers or go for a cheaper Bus Rapid Transit project. At the other end of the transit spectrum, you have scooters. But they work. They’re convenient and they have a constituency, especially for those who embrace anything with an e- in front of the name.
“I think they’re great,” said a scooter user who was trucking along East Center Street last month, wearing a suit and tie. He didn’t have time to stop for an interview — he was on his way home for a quick lunch before a business meeting. “I highly recommend them. They’re easy to use.”
They are, that is, if you have a smartphone and a credit card. You have to download the Lime app, put in a credit card number and scan the QR code on the handlebar to unlock it, but then away you go, at speeds of up to 15 mph. Ride it for about 15 minutes, covering about a mile, and you’ll pay about what you spend on a pumpkin spice latte.
You can leave it wherever — they’re GPS-tracked and workers will find them and return them to high-traffic sites.
You’re not supposed to use them on sidewalks, which means you’re in the mix with cars, trucks, buses and bikes in one of Minnesota’s most congested downtowns. But for law-abiding and hardy souls, they’re catnip for getting around downtown.
Faster than commuting by longboard
For people like Tristin Crain, they’re a way to get to work. Crain, 23, often takes a Lime scooter from his apartment near the city-county Government Center to Broadway Pizza on 41st Street Northwest, a distance of about 4 miles. It’s cheaper than Uber or Lyft, he says, and don’t even ask if a city bus is a convenient option.
There are faster ways to get to work, but “if I need one, I use one — I’m glad they’re here, it’s a nice option,” says Crain, who’s a cook at Broadway Pizza and also has a landscaping job. “If I don’t feel like I want to longboard or walk, I’ll take a scooter.” It costs between $7 and $10, depending on the route and delays.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s a fun way to travel. “I like the speed and convenience,” he says.
Most users don’t take them across town. They’re more useful for getting across downtown for a quick lunch, and for trekking between downtown and the Saint Marys Hospital area. Parking is expensive and hard to find downtown, and while park-and-ride lots are some distance away, scooters may be part of the solution.
Naura Anderson, who directs Threshold Arts at the Castle Community on North Broadway, is a fan and says the scooters help to get people to places such as the Castle that are a few blocks out from the core Mayo Clinic area. “I really think it makes a difference for people who are looking to go a few extra blocks to come here or to other places beyond the center of downtown,” Anderson says.
The scooters arrived in August after winning City Council approval for a four-month test period. About 200 are scattered around the city, mostly in downtown but you never know where you’ll see one later in the day.
City Council Member Mark Bilderback, whose ward includes downtown, voted against the test drive but he’s impressed so far with what he’s seen.
“I voted against it only because we as a council did not place any guidelines on the experiment,” Bilderback said. “With that said, I have to admit they have been very popular — I have seen
them at all edges of the city. People seem to like the availability of the scooters,” and he expects their popularity and visibility will only grow.
For a city that aspires to be a global destination for medical visitors, as well as an attractive and affordable place for workers and families, e-scooters may be a tiny piece of the puzzle. One of Lime’s marketing slogans is, “We believe that city life is beautiful life,” and having options like rentable bikes and scooters makes a city more of a destination.
“We need to have lots of arrows in our quiver for moving people around,” said Patrick Seeb, the DMC Economic Development Agency’s director of economic development and placemaking, who was interviewed while riding a scooter. “It’s a solution. It’s not a solution that works for everyone, but it creates another outlet for people.”
Seeb said he knows of people who park on the edge of downtown and use Lime to get the rest of the way in, or who use them to get from one side of downtown to the other. “I wouldn’t use a scooter to go two or three blocks, but if you’re going to Discovery Square and it’s six blocks, a scooter’s a good option.”
Among the other arrows in Rochester’s quiver is free bike sharing — you can check out a bike as well as a book from the Rochester Public Library — and Seeb says commercial, app-oriented bike sharing programs similar to Lime are likely to surface next year. Car sharing also will grow.
“What has happened in other cities and what’s emerging here is that we’re beginning to have all these layers of options,” he said. “They don’t exclude someone who wants to or needs to drive a car to work, but they provide alternatives.”
More than a novelty
Though Lime isn’t sharing numbers about ridership, the city reported after the first week of use, Aug. 1-7, that the company had logged 5,970 rides and 2,766 riders, covering 7,853 miles. The median distance covered was 0.8 miles, and the median time was 10 minutes. Those numbers presumably have grown as people are noticing the scooters and climbing aboard.
The company first contacted the city about giving Rochester a try in late spring, Youn said. One other scooter vendor contacted Rochester earlier this year but it was a startup that doesn’t operate elsewhere yet, said Jaymi Wilson, the city’s project manager for the scooters.
“The public reaction has been similar to the reaction in other communities,” Wilson said. “Riders tend to find the scooters useful as well as fun.” The two concerns that the city hears are the potential danger to riders and pedestrians, and scooters left in the middle of sidewalks after a ride. “At this point, we are listening and addressing concerns from the public,” she said. “Additional education of both riders and non-riders continues to occur.”
One goal of city and DMC decision-makers is to reduce the number of single-occupancy cars downtown by increasing the number of people using transit from 10 percent to 20 percent by 2040.
“Part of this intended shift is the need to ensure people have options for their last mile” into the center city, Wilson said. “This is where micromobility offers solutions for the shorter trips someone may need during the day when their car is not as accessible.”
There’s no guarantee that Lime will pass the test and win city approval again next year, though Wilson said the city will send out a request for proposals for next year and beyond if the test is deemed a success. “The city is hopeful this program will continue next year, and will wait for additional feedback and data before making any final decisions.”
There’s also no guarantee that Lime will be interested in a return engagement after putting away the scooters in late November and crunching the numbers. But there are plenty of e-scooter vendors out there, including companies linked to Lyft and Uber, and while Rochester is a micro market compared with other e-scooter cities, there are few cities of 115,000 people with as many downtown workers and visitors, and with a roadmap for innovative growth.
Rich Hetland, who was riding a Lime through downtown one day last month, is among the early adopters who see the value of scooters. Hetland, 36, lives in northeast Rochester and works at Mayo Clinic; this fall, he parks outside of downtown, east of the Zumbro River, and takes a Lime to and from work.
“They work well and they’re convenient,” he said. “There has to be a balance — if there were too many of them on the street, it might be a nuisance, but for getting in and around downtown, they’re a nice option.”
How to use a Lime e-scooter
— Download the app to your smartphone from Li.me.
— Enter a credit card number.
— Find a Lime scooter and scan the QR code to unlock it and start the clock running.
— “Prime” it by rolling it to start, then lightly touch the throttle to gain some speed.
— Remember to “lock” it afterward, to end the ride and payment. Shoot a pic in the app to show where the scooter was left.
— There’s a “pause” function on the app — learn how to use it at stoplights, etc., to save money.
— Lime scooters have minimal shock absorbers — hit a curb or a seam in the road and you’ll get a bone-rattling jolt. Hang on tight.
— Try it out on a less-traveled street to make sure you’re comfortable with it.
— Obey local laws — don’t ride on sidewalks, first of all. Scooters are legal in Rochester bike lanes.
— Some scooters are more used than others; choose carefully.
— Lime recommends helmets.
Jay Furst is a freelance writer in Rochester.