On the morning of Aug. 18, a fleet of 200 Lime electric scooters was deployed on the streets of Boulder — brand-new “generation four” e-scooters for shared use, anywhere within the City’s designated pilot area east of 28th Street. You’ll notice them parked in groups near BCycle stations or scattered independently wherever riders leave them. It’s part of the City’s recently launched “Shared Micromobility Plan” that aims to help Boulder achieve its ambitious climate and transportation goals.
However, it’s still uncertain whether Boulder will welcome commercial e-scooter operators permanently, and to what extent, according to David Kemp, the City of Boulder transportation planner. If this pilot program shows promise and the data collected shows sustainability potential, it could mean a new era of shared micromobility e-transportation is dawning in Boulder. In such a case, shared e-scooters like Lime’s could become as omni-present in this city as they are in others, like Denver.
If the data isn’t as compelling as both Lime and the City hope, it’s back to the drawing board.
“We’re testing this mobility option out to understand how it functions,” Kemp says. “Then we’ll do an evaluation over the course of a year and report back to [City] Council with recommendations on whether to expand it, whether to keep it the same or whether to terminate the program.”
The arrival of e-scooter operators has been looming over Boulder for two years now. Nico Probst, the director of government relations at Lime, says they’d been eyeing Boulder since they launched in Denver in 2018.
“Boulder has always made sense as a next step in our micromobility program,” Probst says. “When we see cities like Boulder that have really great cycling communities and really good bike lane infrastructure, that in and of itself tends to be a very good indicator of a city that’s ready for this new mode [of transportation].”
Boulder, however, was not ready at the time. In the summer of 2019, Boulder City Council established a temporary “emergency moratorium” on e-scooter operators like Lime.
“We want these micromobility solutions in Boulder,” then-councilmember Sam Weaver told Boulder Weekly in June of 2019. “But we want to do it in a way that avoids some of the downsides that other communities have seen as they come in.”
For example, when e-scooters arrived in Denver, it happened without any real warning, according to Cindy Patton, the strategic advisor at the Denver Public Works Office of Policy Legislative Affairs and Special Initiatives. Lime notified them on a Wednesday, Patton recalled, then dropped 300 e-scooters that Friday throughout the Mile High City. A week later, Bird followed suit — likewise deploying its scooters without warning or consultation. By the end of 2018, there were five different e-vehicle and ride-share companies operating e-scooters in Denver and there were thousands of the dockless vehicles scattered throughout the city.
It sent Denver scrambling, according to Patton. She said in a 2019 interview, “We were definitely in reactive mode, and that was not ideal.”
Even today, two years later, Denver is still ironing out some of the kinks caused by that sudden e-scooter invasion. Just this May, the Denver City Council passed a resolution limiting the number of e-scooter operators to two (instead of five), limiting them each to 1,500 e-scooters, and establishing specific areas for commercial e-scooter docking and charging throughout the city.
Denver’s experience with Lime made the City of Boulder leery. Between the city’s concern for sustainability, environmental-consciousness, and, perhaps most enticingly, its customer base of University of Colorado students, it seemed obvious that e-scooter operators would want to come to Boulder. But the City wanted to do it their way — so Council established the emergency moratorium, legally blocking operators from obtaining business licenses in the city and opening up time to make a plan.
Then, in Sept. 2020, after over a year of deliberation, the City finally removed its moratorium, announcing the launch of its shared micromobility plan and putting out a Request for Information (RFI) for prospective e-scooter operators hoping to get into Boulder.
“We were looking for vendors to provide bikes and scooters as part of this shared mobility program,” says Kemp. “Through that RFI process, we received a number of responses and then two of the responses really rose to the top.”
Those being Lime and BCycle LLC — whose bicycle system was already operating under the nonprofit Boulder Bike Share. The two micromobility operators teamed up and pitched the City with a partnership: BCycle would take over the Boulder Bike Share’s role, refurbishing the BCycle stations, expanding the program and upgrading the fleet to fully electric bicycles, while Lime handled Boulder’s e-scooter operations.
It was a win-win, Kemp says.
“These guys were the logical choices, and they have good products,” Kemp says. “They were chosen through that competitive (RFI) process to provide these services for the community.”
The City Council consulted their stakeholders and decided to run the pilot program in a restricted area — east of 28th St., and between Jay and South Boulder Roads — a test zone geofenced to contain Lime’s e-scooter fleet. There, they can be accessed by residents, students on CU’s East Campus and professionals working in the area. For now, the scooters won’t be able to travel beyond the parameters.
Kemp explains that over the course of the next year, the City will be collecting data from those e-scooters to see how much of an impact they actually have on local transportation. To do so, he says the City will be looking at safety data, parking compliance, the number of rides taken, the distance of those rides, demographics of use, responsiveness to operational concerns and, perhaps most importantly, how many people use e-scooters instead of a regular vehicle. All of that data will be compiled and analyzed to help guide and inform the City of Boulder’s Shared Micromobility Plan.
“The data is really going to tell us how well [the pilot] is operating,” Kemp says. Based on what they see, he says they’ll make decisions on how to proceed with e-scooter operators like Lime.
Among the biggest factors in that decision is the gross environmental impact this new form of micromobility has in the community. Recently, the City updated its Climate Action Plan, setting some ambitious goals, like reducing Boulder’s Carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, and becoming a carbon positive city by the year 2050. That’s partly why Boulder ended its nearly two-year moratorium and put out its RFI, Kemp says. Potentially, e-scooters could have a significant positive impact on Boulder’s carbon footprint.
There are still lingering questions about some of the environmental impacts these e-scooters bring with them. As noted in a May 2019 memo from Boulder City Council, the average lifespan of a standard e-scooter was just 30 days — the result of widespread use, abuse and vandalism, which resulted in a lot of waste.
“The early generations of e-scooters that came out were junk,” Kemp admits. “They couldn’t last within a shared environment.”
Since those early days, though, the technology has come a long way, according to both Kemp and Probst. Now, these e-scooters are significantly more durable, last much longer, are made with more replaceable, repairable pieces, have longer battery lives and soon, they’ll even have swappable batteries. Probst says they’ve seen lifespans expand to well-over two years with their newer e-scooters.
“Right now we’ve got the latest and the greatest on the ground,” Kemp says. “This is Lime’s generation four [e-scooter]. It’s the cream of the crop.”
That won’t change as e-scooter tech continues to improve. Soon, Lime’s e-scooter with a swappable battery will replace the generation four e-scooters currently operating under Boulder’s pilot program. Probst says that will help reduce their carbon footprint even more, because they won’t have to collect e-scooters every night, drive them to a charging warehouse, and then drive them back out to be distributed again the next day. They’ll simply bring charged batteries to used scooters and swap them out.
Eventually, those e-scooters will be replaced with generation five, six and so forth.
“I think Boulder really benefited from their slow and judicious approach here, because the industry itself has made big strides in really ensuring that the lifespan of our vehicles is sustainable,” Probst says. “They’re way above and beyond what the early [generations] were.”
As the data from this pilot program pours in over the next year, the City will get a better idea for how commercial e-scooters fit into Boulder and what the actual impact on transportation and sustainability could look like.
“It is definitely an experiment in the transportation and social realms,” Kemp says. “There’s a lot of people that really like [e-scooters] and there’s a lot of people that just flat out hate them. I don’t want to call it a polarizing issue, but you really can get different perspectives on this.”
Polarizing or not, Probst says that improved and expanded forms of micromobility are becoming a necessary piece of the sustainability puzzle — and a necessary part of our future, if we’re trying to build more sustainable cities with smaller carbon footprints.
“Getting as many people to look for alternative forms of transportation has got to be a big focus for cities in the next few years, as we’re facing a pretty daunting uphill climb in the battle against climate change,” Probst says.