SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after a surprise appearance in Salt Lake City late last month, the flock of 100 or so rentable Bird scooters that were nested on the streets of downtown have, just as suddenly, disappeared.
Salt Lake City officials report the company agreed to a temporary removal of the electric-powered vehicles while a path to a business license, and some operating rules, could be worked out.
And now it appears there could be hundreds, or possibly thousands, of new scooters and bikes populating the state's capital city as three additional companies have lined up to potentially launch systems in which their two-wheelers can be rented, ridden and left at the users' destinations, wherever they may be.
Salt Lake City Transportation Director Jon Larsen said the city has crafted a draft operating agreement that, as of Wednesday, has been sent out to Bird and three additional companies including Ofo (bikes), Lime (bikes and scooters) and Spin (scooters). Larsen said the goal is to put some reasonable limits on volumes of rentals as well as establish guidelines about where, and where not, bikes and scooters can be left when not in use.
"We've carefully structured the operating agreement in a way that is not too overly bureaucratic," Larsen said. "We've also include incentives to encourage (transportation) investment where we want it."
To that end, the draft agreement, which is subject to modification pending comments from the four vendors, proposed limiting initial launches of bike or scooters to 200 vehicles. However, if the vendor agrees to place an additional 100 vehicles west of I-15, where the city is working to enhance transportation options, it can then add 200 more bikes or scooters in the city. And if the company agrees to create designated parking areas for vehicles, there's the possibility of going beyond the 500 mark.
The agreement also includes stipulations about where scooters and bikes cannot be parked. Banned areas include within 15 feet of any bus stop, building entrance or exit, ADA ramp or traffic pole. They also can't be parked within 50 feet of a GreenBike dock, or within two feet of a bike rack, unless the device is locked to the rack. Scooters or bikes on sidewalks must be parked in a way that maintains 10 feet of clearance.
The companies have 48-hours to provide feedback and/or comments on the draft document, according to city officials.
While Bird Rides Inc. declined a Deseret News interview request, the company did provide a statement.
"Salt Lake City and Bird have a shared vision of a community with fewer cars, less traffic and reduced carbon emissions," the statement read. "In our time here, we have been inspired by how willing the community is to trade short car trips for Bird rides. We’ve been having productive conversations with local leaders, and we look forward to continuing to work with Salt Lake City's leadership to build an interim agreement that supports affordable and accessible transportation options."
Larsen said the city is proceeding cautiously in hopes of preventing overload in the central business district and would like to accommodate the new companies in a manner that keeps Salt Lake City's 6-year-old GreenBike program sustainable. GreenBike, a nonprofit program that utilizes 34 docks housing 375 bicycles in a two-square mile area of downtown, differs from the newbies in that bikes must be checked out from and returned to established docks. The effort has been held up nationally as a model bikeshare program and has been on a steady expansion path since inception.
GreenBike Executive Director Ben Bolte told the Desert News the program's ongoing success stems from a conservative approach that's leaned heavily on public involvement, local supporters and data-based expansion plans.
"I think the primary reason behind GreenBike's success tracks back to great community partnerships and a committment to station density ... making it as easy as possible for people to access bikes where they want, to get them where they need to go," Bolte said.
Bolte said he was concerned about how the new dockless vendors may operate, based on reports coming from other cities. Those reports include dockless scooters and bikes left blocking public right-of-ways like sidewalks and roads as well as encounters between riders and pedestrians. Some social media nodes have dedicated channels documenting poor user conduct, like Twitter's #ScootersBehavingBadly.
Denver has launched a regulatory pilot program, looking to limit scooter and bike volumes at similar levels to those under consideration in Salt Lake City, but only after issues arose with vehicles being left in public space. The Mile High City currently has two dockless scooter programs operating, but has seven more queued up to do business, according to the Denver Post. Milwaukee got 100 Bird scooters about the same time Salt Lake did and the city attorney there has since filed a lawsuit against Bird Rides Inc. The action is seeking an injunction to halt the company's program, with the city claiming it is illegal to operate scooters on either sidewalks or roadways there.
While Salt Lake City officials have said the scooters, which have a top speed of 15 mph, are best operated in bike lanes, state ordinance prohibits them from streets of four or more lanes or with speed limits in excess of 25 mph.
While the new companies will be bringing some checkered performance reports from other communities in which they've launched as well as competition for the city's popular GreenBike program, Larsen said he was cautiously optimistic about finding a way to make it work, while recognizing it would be an evolutionary process.3 comments on this story
Bolte said he would like to see a public engagement process attached to granting the share companies permission to operate in the city, but still sounded positive about how the new systems may fit into the city's overall mobility scheme.
"I think it's an amazing and exciting time right now in transportation," Bolte said. "Seeing investment going into shared mobility systems has been one of the coolest and most interesting things about my job.
"Competition is healthy and we should be trying to figure out ways to make it work."