A version of this piece first appeared on EdSurge.
As college students head back to school, electric scooter companies want to help them get to class.
Colleges and universities are among the latest points of interest for e-scooter operators, which have taken major cities across the country by storm after deploying the dockless scooters—sometimes unannounced. They’ve developed a reputation for littering streets, creating safety hazards, and even threatening to call the police on riders who don’t pay. San Francisco and Nashville both issued cease-and-desist letters until officials and scooter operators agreed on how the companies can operate.
The next battleground for scooter companies may be colleges and universities. Take Venice, California–based Bird, which recently launched a “University Pop-Up Tour” with the aim to introduce students and faculty to the scooters. The tour could reach up to 150 universities, and planned stops include Arkansas Tech University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Missouri.
It appears Bird is continuing its surprise launch tactics, and some colleges found themselves in the pop-up tour without knowing. Audrey Smith, a media relations manager at UNC–Chapel Hill, told the News and Observer that Bird “did not coordinate their arrival with the university but that campus officials were aware of them.” Cities and campuses on the university pop-up tour have already requested for the devices to be removed.
Trouble with the scooters on campus started before the pop-up tour. At the University of California–Los Angeles, campus police have begun cracking down on students who violate traffic rules while riding electric scooters on campus. Farther north at the University of California–Berkeley, Dave Sorrell, manager of the school’s Alternative Transportation Program, told Berkeleyside that Skip electric scooters had showed up on campus without university permission. They were removed after the university contacted the company.
This isn’t the first uproar over electric transportation on campus. Remember the Segway? The electric scooter-like devices may be known these days as a chariot for tourists on guided tours, but they had a short stint on college campuses, too. That is, before several universities banned them. Scooters are much more friendly to the student budget, though: Segways cost about $6,000 and are privately owned, rather than the shared scooters which generally cost $1 to rent and 15 cents per minute to ride.
Some campuses are embracing the scooter fad through formal partnerships with scooter companies. The University of Minnesota, for example, is gearing up to launch a pilot program with Bird and Lime that could start this month. Scooters haven’t yet debuted on the campus—the university is still finalizing an agreement with both scooter companies—but Steve Sanders, the school’s alternative transportation manager, says “indications look good” that the contract will come back signed. He’s optimistic about their role on campus. “Everybody who’s actually ever ridden one of these, of course, loves it,” Sanders says. “They’re a lot of fun, and they serve a real transportation purpose, too.”
But Sanders’ interest in the partnership isn’t purely motivated by how fun the devices are. He thinks they’re inevitable, so he’s preparing now to try to prevent visits to the university health center from scooter accidents. “We’ve definitely heard concerns, especially from pedestrians, about scooters operating on sidewalks,” he says, adding that his office is expecting complaints as students return to campus this week. “The actual [scooter] lends itself to potential issues. It’s highly maneuverable, it goes fast. And the temptation will be for people to fit in small spaces.”
The University of Minnesota is situated along the Mississippi River a short distance away from downtown Minneapolis, where Bird and Lime both began operating fleets this summer. Shortly after, the scooter companies also arrived in nearby St. Paul. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the devices would show up on campus, Sanders quickly reached out to Bird. “We talked to them when they launched [in Minneapolis], and we asked them not to deploy scooters here,” says Sanders. “But we understood that there would be scooters ending up on campus.”
The goal was not to keep the scooters away from the campus indefinitely, but rather to develop policies around what to do with them before they showed up. “We weren’t worried about being overrun by scooters,” he says. “But we needed to figure out how we were going to handle it.”
Bird and Lime agreed to the university’s request to delay deployment, Sanders says, and the companies and school have been working in recent weeks to design a pilot program that will roll out this fall.
Officials at Bird, Lime, and other scooter companies contacted for this story did not respond to requests for comment about the campus deployments. In previous press interviews, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden displayed “ignorance about all the controversy he has caused,” the New York Times reported. “Anything any city’s asked us to do, aside from shut down, we do,” he told the Times.
The University of Minnesota modeled its agreement with Bird and Lime after the city of Minneapolis’ license with scooter companies. As part of an ongoing four-month pilot program underway in Minneapolis, Bird and Lime will pay the city $20 per scooter, place no more than 200 scooters in the first two months, and will remove the devices by winter, according to the StarTribune.
If the agreements are signed, Bird and Lime will drop 50 scooters at destinations determined by the University of Minnesota’s transportation officials, according to Sanders. The school will charge a fee to deploy the scooters on campus, though the price has yet to be determined.
The university has also been rushing to work with Minneapolis officials to make sure that its arrangement with Bird and Lime do not conflict with the policies set in place between the city and the companies.
“It’s been going at breakneck speed trying to get policies established and work with the city because we want to have a seamless experience,” says Sanders. “You don’t want to have a bunch of rules that are only applicable on campus, because that just gets confusing for the user.”
The university’s next hurdle will be to set up rules and guidelines around the electric scooters. The scooters currently fall under the same statutes that govern bicycles use on the campus, and scooter riders have to adhere to the same traffic rules that apply to bikers.
But it’s hard to know what the scooter companies’ own strategies may look like come November, when the pilot wraps up. Recently, Bird’s chief legal officer told the Information that the company is opening up to the idea of installing locking systems to keep the scooters clear of pedestrian pathways.
Or maybe electric scooters will go the way of the Segway on college campuses—slowly, but surely, far away.