A Bird Rides company photo shows a flock of its electric scooters, which can be rented by the public via a smartphone application. (Courtesy photo)

NEWPORT — A final agreement will still have to be approved by the Newport City Council, but a pilot deployment of electric rental scooters got an initial green light on Monday.

During the city council’s regular meeting, Kate Shoemaker, territory manager for Bird Rides, Inc., pitched councilors on bringing a fleet of 50 of the company’s rentable electric scooters to Newport.

Bird Rides’ scooters are located and unlocked using a smartphone-based application, and users pay a mileage fee, an average of $5 per ride. The city’s cut would be five cents per ride plus applicable tax, Shoemaker said.

“We’d have one fleet manager managing these vehicles, and we’d be interested in launching as soon as possible because we want to be active before winter hits,” she said.

Shoemaker said the company’s geo-fencing technology allows it to monitor each vehicle’s location and control its operation accordingly, creating no parking, low-speed and exclusion areas.

The vehicles are typically parked in clusters of two or three in the “furniture zone” of sidewalks — the space between the throughway and the curb. In his report to the council, City Manager Spencer Nebel noted that this was one of staff’s chief concerns, as some of the city’s most popular tourist areas, the Bayfront and Nye Beach, have very narrow sidewalks. Other logistical issues, such as crossing Yaquina Bay Bridge, would also have to be addressed.

Nebel’s report notes potential advantages, such as better access to congested areas and a reduction in the city’s carbon footprint.

Councilor Ryan Parker asked Shoemaker what measures had been taken to prevent scooters being thrown into waterways and what the responsibility of local police would be in recovering misused vehicles.

“Bird is responsible for retrieving any vehicle that is lost. We consider it a cost of doing business,” Shoemaker said. “We can also do things like, if there is a specific bridge where we see vehicles being lost, we can create a no park zone close to that waterway.” She said the vehicles are relatively heavy and difficult to move a significant distance undriven.

CM Hall, city council president, said she had a lot of questions. She asked if the scooters came with helmets, what the company would pay their local manager, how that person would be trained and what the lifecycle for each vehicle was.

Shoemaker said the company promotes the use of helmets with a “helmet selfie” option, in which users can upload a photo of themselves in a helmet for a discounted ride, and it will provide free helmets on request for the cost of shipping, but ultimately helmet use is up to the rider.

She said fleet managers were paid purely on commission from fleet revenue. “I have seen fleet managers make more than $12,000 a week,” she said, and they average about $1,500 a week. She said managers are vetted through a series of interviews and go through a training program.

Although early models deteriorated quickly, the scooters are now expected to last upwards of two years, Shoemaker said.

Parker said he was concerned about the potential competition for local businesses that rent bicycles. He asked what the overlap was between bike and scooter renters and if those local operations could partner with Bird.

“Those are some our first targets, calling of local bike shops,” Shoemaker said. “We would love to partner with them if they are qualified and up for the challenge.” She said bikes and scooters were usually rented for different purposes — bikes for all-day recreation, and scooters more as a means to get from place to place.

Hall asked City Attorney David Allen what the city’s liability would be in the event of an injury or property damage incurred through use of the scooters. Allen said it was a good question, and he would need to investigate it before commenting.

In March, Bird Rides sought permission to operate in Lincoln City. That city council denied the request, but later that same week, dozens of scooters showed up around town. Newport’s city manager asked Shoemaker to explain what happened.

“We thought that we had proper approval to launch, and we were working with an individual who gave us approval,” Shoemaker said, noting that she was not personally involved in that circumstance. “But I guess that was not the proper approval. Our fleet manager launched the vehicles, and the city got rightfully upset.”

Hall said she had concerns about the proposal. “This wasn’t anything we put in our city council goals,” she said, though she and several other councilors were supportive of electric vehicles for their green potential. “Five cents a ride — that’s not much of a kickback for the city.”

The council president said she expected most riders would be weekend visitors who would not come with their own helmets or know Newport’s roads, creating room for error, and she didn’t think paying the fleet manager only on commission would be sustainable in the local economy. Although not entirely against the concept, she said she wasn’t prepared to move forward with those issues unaddressed.

On Parker’s motion to authorize the city manager to negotiate a pilot agreement, Hall, Councilor Beatriz Botello and Councilor Aaron Collett voted no, and the motion passed 4-3.

City staff will negotiate a draft agreement with the company and bring it before council for final authorization.

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