BOZEMAN — Main Street is no stranger to noise on a Saturday night, but in recent years a new sound has joined the chattering crowds and pounding music: the low, dull hum of electric scooters whizzing around downtown.

The sleek metallic Bird scooters are hard to miss, and are a far cry from manual scooters of the past. These battery-powered vehicles accelerate via hand throttle and have a footbed large enough to comfortably stand on two feet. Users download an app that maps the location of every parked scooter in the city. In order to ride, the user finds the scooter they want to use, scans a QR code to unlock the wheels and begins their ride. Starting a ride costs $1, and each minute until the scooter is locked again costs 39 cents.

A spokesperson from Bird said Bozeman users have collectively logged more than 80,000 miles on Bird scooters since the company came to the city in 2021.

Suzanne Eggert has been riding the rentable e-scooters for two summers. She said they’ve become extremely helpful since she sold her car last fall. 

“Before I didn’t have a car, it was just for fun, or to get home from the bars or something,” Eggert said. “I feel like right now it’s for if I have to walk and don’t feel like it. I can get across town pretty quickly on them. And it’s nice that I can just be wherever and usually find one pretty close. It’s nice for going out or if I get dropped off somewhere.” 

Outside of downtown Bozeman, the scooters may be parked anywhere in the city. But on Main, Mendenhall and Babcock streets between Grand and Wallace avenues, riders can end their ride (and thus stop being charged) only by parking their Bird in one of 15 designated parking areas. 

Those parking areas are meant to address issues that arose with a previous electric scooter vendor, Blink Rides, that operated in Bozeman in 2019 and 2020. Taylor Lonsdale is the city transportation engineer who oversees shared micromobility (transportation over short distance) programs like Blink Rides and Bird.

“Through the first two years with Blink Rides operating in Bozeman, we learned and worked with the vendor to adjust and refine our requirements,” Lonsdale said in an email. “With those experiences the city recognized a need to develop a more formal process to permit these businesses.” Blink Rides did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

 “Whether or not they got a ticket we’ve certainly stopped some, given them warnings and talked about their activity on the roadway. And most of that happens at night.”

Bozeman Police Deputy Chief Andy Knight

As a result, Bozeman’s City Commission passed a new law in February. The ordinance requires micromobility companies to obtain a specific permit and adhere to terms of operation. Among the terms are restrictions on parking downtown, as well as requirements that companies like Bird inform riders of the local and state laws governing operation of the vehicles. 

Because the scooters are considered vehicles, Bird riders must agree to follow traffic laws when they download the app: no riding on sidewalks, obey traffic lights, yield to pedestrians, etc.

Nevertheless, Bozeman police have stopped 17 scooters in the last year, according to Deputy Chief Andy Knight. 

Knight could not confirm whether any tickets had been issued to e-scooter riders. 

“Whether or not they got a ticket we’ve certainly stopped some, given them warnings and talked about their activity on the roadway. And most of that happens at night,” Knight said. “But we haven’t had a lot of crazy issues with the scooters.”

Sam Rickenbaugh owns the Great Rocky Mountain Toy company on Main Street and says he’s seen both responsible and irresponsible use of the scooters. 

“When I’ve seen [people] using them, it’s fairly responsible and respectful to the community,” Rickenbaugh said. “However, it seems like people are maybe using them in late hours and then leaving them in places they shouldn’t be left, trashing them.”  

Scooter riders are plentiful in downtown Bozeman this summer, as seen here from the rooftop of the Bozeman Taproom on Rouse Avenue. Credit: Mardy Harding / MTFP

Keelan Evins works at the Haufbrau House, which is located on Babcock a few blocks west of the Downtown Business District and the designated scooter parking areas. Evins said he has seen the scooters in dumpsters, thrown on the roof of the Haufbrau, even abandoned with the ride still active and the meter running.

“[The scooters] just get left here. The person is so wasted,” Evins said. “This is the last spot, and then it’s Uber time.”

Evins said most people who deposit the scooters outside Haufbrau House are intoxicated when they arrive. “When you’re drunk you should not be operating a vehicle,” he said. “It’s not responsible.” 

Both Evins and Rickenbaugh said many of the scooter riders appear to be college students. Jackson Schwab recently graduated from Montana State and said he uses the scooters to get downtown or to access his left-behind car the morning after a night out. While he owns a bicycle, he said he appreciates that he can leave the scooters behind. 

“I don’t have to worry about it getting stolen,” he said.

“When you’re drunk you should not be operating a vehicle. It’s not responsible.”

Keelan Evins, Haufbrau House

Despite the frequent use of e-scooters by college students downtown, the Bird scooters are not allowed on most of MSU’s campus. Not only is the majority of campus a no-park zone, like downtown, but they’re also a no-ride zone. Scooters taken within the boundaries automatically lose power until they are taken off the campus.

Schwab described discovering the no-ride zone the day of his graduation.

“I was late for my graduation ceremony, and I was riding a Bird from my parents’ Airbnb. As soon as I got onto campus, it just started to slow down,” he said. “You couldn’t leave it there because it’s still charging you, so I had to push the scooter back to the boundary where you can leave it, and then run to the ceremony.”

MSU passed its policy prohibiting the use of motorized personal transportation devices in 2020. Tracy Ellig, MSU’s vice president of communications, said in an email, “The university policy passed in 2020 was done so out of concern for the safety of our students, faculty and staff. The core of campus can be shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrians at times.” Ellig said there are no plans to change the policy.

Lonsdale, the city engineer, said that overall the city’s relationship with the scooter companies has been good. He emphasized that Bird, and any other micromobility companies that may begin operation in Bozeman, are not affiliated with the city. 

“The city does not have a formal partnership with any scooter companies,” he said. “We certainly see the companies as partners in addressing concerns and working to provide increased mobility options.”

When asked why Bird wanted to operate in Bozeman, a company spokesperson said, “With its robust climate plan and a community that values exploring the outdoors, Bozeman was a natural fit for our shared e-scooter program.”

The spokesperson was unable to say how many scooters are operating in Bozeman or if more are coming, noting that the number is always changing. 

“We are happy to see Bozeman residents and visitors utilizing the hundreds of Bird scooters we’ve brought to the city to replace gas-powered car trips. We will continue to work with the city to ensure we are meeting demand,” the spokesperson said. 

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Mardy Harding is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Bozeman. She adores meeting, talking to and learning about people and the issues they care about. Before Montana Free Press, she wrote for OutdoorsNW magazine and several small local papers in her home state of Washington. She also interned for the WNYC podcast "Death, Sex and Money," and now produces a podcast about Animation and animated movies.