Do scooters make sense in a small town like Matthews?
Pilot program places 50 Bird scooters around town as an eco-friendly way of getting around
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The town of Matthews is two months into a yearlong e-scooter pilot program, and ridership has slowed after an initial surge; some residents question if they’re needed in a small downtown
Two of the 50 Bird e-scooters in Matthews could be seen outside the Town Hall Monday afternoon around lunchtime. Other scooters were parked along the sidewalk on North Trade Street outside restaurants, shops and Stumptown Park. (Photo by Lindsey Banks)
By Lindsey Banks
It’s been nearly two months since the Town of Matthews launched its one-year pilot e-scooter program. Though it’s not the typical urban domain for e-scooters, the 14.21-square-mile town hopes its 50 new Bird scooters will support its “vision for a well-planned, multi-modal transportation system,” Mayor John Higdon said in a news release heralding the arrival of the vehicles.
Bird, known for its white and black scooter stems, is one of four major e-scooter companies with a presence in Charlotte, alongside Lime, Spin and the newest addition, Helbiz. E-scooters allow riders to start, end and pay for their rides through an app and offer an eco-friendly transportation option to cut down on gas-powered car trips and carbon emissions.
Since Matthews Mayor Pro Tem Ken McCool took the inaugural Bird ride on July 1, McCool said 407 unique riders have taken 975 rides, totaling over 1,300 miles in Matthews. Ridership was high the first few weeks of Matthews’ program, especially over the July 4 weekend, but has slowed since then, said Maureen Keith, town communications coordinator. She expects ridership to pick up once the weather cools down.
Downtown Matthews has certainly maintained a vibrant downtown, made even more bustling in recent years with the arrivals of new businesses like the boutique Moxie Mercantile and popular restaurants including Mac’s Speed Shop, White Duck Taco and Moo & Brew. Its downtown is compact and walkable. That could make Matthews — and perhaps other older small towns around Charlotte — more appealing for e-scooter users than the seas of cul-de-sacs that define many newer suburbs.
But whether enough residents and visitors will decide to ditch their cars to go from place to place and zip around on scooters to justify keeping the two-wheeled vehicles around remains to be seen.
Suburban pioneer: McCool said Matthews is Bird’s first Charlotte suburb — and one of the first suburbs in the country — to offer its e-scooters as a mode of micro-transit, offering a more flexible and on-demand transportation option in the town of 30,000 residents. Bird reached out to the town to launch the program. McCool said Matthews’ growth made it a potential market to test its eco-friendly scooters in a smaller town.
“Many people come to downtown Matthews, so there’s definitely a need for them,” McCool said. “Micro-transit makes the town more affordable, makes it more accessible, so I think [Bird] saw an opportunity, and they came to us. It’s a really good opportunity for our community.”
The scooters will not operate outside of a geofence, or virtual perimeter, to keep the Bird scooters within the city limits of Matthews. They also will not work on a two-block stretch of Trade Street downtown “due to high pedestrian and vehicle traffic.” An average ride in Matthews lasts about 15 minutes, according to a Bird spokesperson.
“I see people in the evening, especially going into the weekends, using them,” McCool said. “If someone’s in downtown Matthews and they want to go from Town Hall then to go get dinner at Jekyll and Hyde, they will take the scooter over taking their cars.”
Some ‘pushback’ from residents: Mark Ehrhardt, who lives in Matthews and works at Renfrow’s Hardware and General Merchandise on North Trade Street, said he’s noticed a few people on e-scooters ride past the store, but he questions whether they’re needed in a small downtown area like Matthews.
“People just park them wherever they want; I think that’s an issue,” Ehrhardt said. “I’ve seen them parked back in neighborhoods.”
Keith said the town has received comments from residents who share the same parking concern, as well as “general pushback” on the program in which residents are questioning the need for e-scooters in Matthews.
“We continue to work with Bird and our Fleet Manager to make sure the scooters are not blocking sidewalks or on personal property,” Keith said in an email. “This is a pilot program, so if we find it’s not working for Matthews, we will not continue with it.”
Keith also noted there have been no reported traffic or safety-related incidents.
Bird’s pricing and rates typically depend on the area and demand. In Matthews, there’s a starting fee of $1 and an additional 39 cents per minute with a $3 minimum. The pilot program is being offered at no expense to the town. McCool said Bird pays the town a few cents per ride.
Hitting the brakes in Ballantyne: Ballantyne attempted a pilot program with Lime three years ago, in July 2019. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, it put the program on hold with “plans to re-evaluate and potentially reinstate the program as we progress toward a more urban, walkable environment,” according to Hailey Rorie, director of community relations at Northwood Office, a commercial real estate agency and subsidiary of Ballantyne Corporate Park’s owner.
There are currently no scooters in Ballantyne.
Before the program ended, Rorie said, Lime scooters were used by residents and visitors to run errands, visit local fitness centers, meet up with friends or colleagues and explore the area.
“By removing the dependence on personal automobiles for short-distance transportation, the scooters provided a cleaner, healthier solution for the environment,” Rorie said in an email to The Ledger.
Evaluation ahead: The Town of Matthews plans to re-evaluate Bird e-scooters when the one-year pilot program ends. McCool said that could potentially mean looking into a more permanent program by expanding the boundaries of the e-scooters, adding more scooters to the area or replacing the old scooters with new ones.
Keith also said the town will add designated parking areas and directional signs near downtown.
“Obviously, this is a new program, so there’s kinks to be worked out,” McCool said. “But we’re really, really pleased with how things are going, and I think it’s really exciting for our community.”
Bird offers a 50% discount through its community pricing program for low-income riders, Pell grant recipients, select local nonprofit and community organizations, veterans and senior citizens. Healthcare workers and emergency personnel can sign up to receive two free 30-minute rides per day due to Covid.
Lindsey Banks is a staff writer for The Ledger: firstname.lastname@example.org
Related Transit Time article:
“Charlotte’s scooters are making a comeback” (June 17, 2021)
Related Charlotte Ledger articles:
“Matthews is becoming the South End of the suburbs” (Feb. 12, 2020)
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