Members of the Des Moines City Council made it clear at an informal workshop this morning that they want to be directly involved in the ramp-up to a decision on whether the city — most likely in the downtown area — tries a pilot program allowing e-scooters. 

They raised the common concerns: Needed regulations. Safety. Possible litter issues. Police enforcement. Hours of operation. Snow. Ice. 

After a long discussion, they informally agreed to participate in a steering committee being formed by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority and the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Those entities are preparing a fact-finding period that will include public comment and involvement of the neighborhood groups, businesses, public safety officials, health groups, AARP and a host of others this fall. 

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said he’s seen problems in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere where e-scooter riders “blew through stop signs,” ignored traffic laws and littered streets. “I don’t know how you control them,” he told City Manager Scott Sanders. 

Said Sanders: “There have been some examples of failures in other communities, and successes as well.” 

Tim Leach, senior vice president of downtown development for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, will be the lead contact for the research phase of the project, with assistance from DART, the MPO and participation by the city. Leach said the Partnership sought to draw a team together after vendors and others raised the prospect of the e-scooters being a good tool for commuters, perhaps offering a way to get to and from bus lines and to take short downtown trips. 

Luis Montoya, DART planning and development manager, and Gunnar Olson, communication and strategy manager, led the workshop discussion, and noted the need for public input, data to guide operations, and regulation.

Leach said scooters could help the broader effort to appeal to young adults, which in turn would mean a bigger workforce. He noted that millennials, for example, routinely list mobility as a top-five concern. The scooters could fit in well with Des Moines’ long-range plans, Plan DSM and Move DSM, and could ease traffic in the main lanes downtown, he added.

Montoya said the debate now will be whether a system would make sense, and if so how to control operations to avoid problems that have plagued other cities. “Des Moines has a choice,” he said. 

Though improvements have been made since, Councilman Joe Gatto said in 2018 Indianapolis’ scooters were a mess. “There was no dock, no parking” designated for them, he said.  

Cownie noted the scooters were on streets and sidewalks in Portland. The council will need to decide where the scooters can be operated, he added. There also were discussions about setting a minimum age for drivers and possibly limiting or banning scooter use at night and during winter when conditions would be an added safety risk. 

Said Sanders: “Safety is a priority.”

The e-scooters already are up and running in Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Chicago, among many other locations. Nearly all of the scooter systems have had one issue or another with public complaints.

City Attorney Jeffrey Lester noted that it’s not a question of whether the scooters will arrive — it’s more a matter of making sure they are properly regulated. “It would be hard to just say we aren’t going to have them,” Lester said, because state lawmakers likely would step in to make sure they are allowed, with regulation, if city officials pursued a ban. 

Councilman Josh Mandelbaum said he would like a small pilot project at first, with data driving expansions of the program. Councilman Chris Coleman said area mayors should be in on the discussion because DART buses, which could carry scooters as they do bikes, cross city boundaries. Mandelbaum noted that the most likely location for a pilot — in downtown Des Moines — presents issues that vary from most other spots in the metro, including density, traffic, and types of buildings.

Business Record reporter Joe Gardyasz examined the e-scooter business earlier this year.