SALT LAKE CITY — The dozens of Bird rentable scooters that perched briefly on downtown streets late last month are poised to return in a flock of hundreds after the company finalized a new agreement with Salt Lake City on Friday.
City officials say the collaboratively constructed operating agreement for so-called "dockless" scooter and bicycle systems places limits on number of vehicles, stipulates rules for keeping sidewalks clear, establishes safety standards and provides for penalties when rules are broken. The document was sent out to five potential vendors this week. Bird is the only company to respond so far, and its scooters could be back in action in a matter of days.
Bird scooters made a surprise appearance on Salt Lake streets in late June, but quickly vanished after the company agreed to voluntarily removing them while it looked into getting a business license from the city.
Dockless companies rent scooters and bikes for rides via a smart phone app and, instead of needing to return vehicles to a designated location, or dock, they can be left wherever users finish their trips. Locating a vehicle to rent is also coordinated by the app, which identifies available scooters or bikes with a digital map.
Salt Lake City Transportation Director Jon Larsen told the Deseret News the experiences of other cities, some of which have been reportedly overrun with the arrival of dockless vehicle systems, helped guide contract language, as did recently released dockless system management guidelines from the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Vendors were also afforded the opportunity to review and suggest changes to the operating document.
"These (rules) came from our own knowledge and observing how these systems have worked in other cities and the kinds of issues that have been encountered and complaints raised," Larsen said. "We're working to get ahead of that here ... and our top priority is public health and safety."
To that end, Larsen said the contract covers things like maintaining ample, unimpeded space on sidewalks, keeping entrances to businesses clear and prohibiting dumping unused scooters in roadways. Space within 10 feet of UTA transit stops is off-limits, as are the areas within 15 feet of a power pole, 15 feet of any ADA ramp or access, and within 50 feet of any GreenBike station.
The agreement also limits the number of vehicles a company can launch in Salt Lake City to 200, with some caveats. If the operator also places 100 bikes or scooters west of I-15, where the city is working to cultivate transportation options, the fleet size can be expanded to 500. That breaks down to 200 vehicles in a designated Central Traffic District, essentially downtown Salt Lake City, 100 west of I-15 and an additional 200 outside the downtown core.
Larsen noted Bird Rides Inc., the operator of the Bird scooter system, had returned a signed operating agreement late Thursday and received its city business license Friday afternoon.
In response to a Deseret News request for comment on when the scooters would be back in operation in Salt Lake City, a company spokesman replied, "We look forward to being back in the community in the coming days."
The operating agreement Bird signed also comes with penalties for failure to abide by contract rules. Larsen said operators are obligated to respond within four hours to any reports of vehicles being left where they are prohibited. If a company fails to rectify reported problems 10 times or more, the city may suspend its operating agreement. Other infractions, Larsen said, are covered by standing city ordinance and could be responded to with warnings, fines and/or impoundments.
With hundreds of Bird scooters on the verge of flocking to Salt Lake City, and one of the city's biggest annual events —the Days of ’47 parade that draws tens of thousands — scheduled Tuesday, Larsen said an interesting vetting exercise could be lining up.
"That (convergence) provides a very strong stress test right off the bat and could be a great learning opportunity," Larsen said. "We'll definitely get a glimpse of what works and what doesn't."
Further viability tests of the city's management plan may play out as additional dockless vendors launch in Salt Lake City. Larsen said copies of operating agreement have gone out to Lime (scooters and bikes), Spin (scooters), Ofo (bikes), as well as Razor (scooters.)6 comments on this story
While China-based Ofo has recently announced it's scaling back operations in North America and notified the city it will not be doing business in Salt Lake, Lime and Spin appear likely to follow Bird into the fray. Razor is a familiar brand thanks to the long-running popularity of its kick-and-go scooters. The company has recently developed electric-powered scooters and appears ready to enter the dockless active transportation market. While Bird, Lime and Spin are operating in numerous cities, Razor has yet to launch and could make Salt Lake City one of its debut operating launches.
Larsen said the city has intentionally created flexibility within its dockless vendor contract to allow for adjustments as conditions change and lessons are learned, and is already planning monthly assessments of dockless operations in Salt Lake City.
"It's important that people know that we see this very much as a pilot period, a learning period," Larsen said. "We're prepared to be responsive and adapt to more of what works, and less of what doesn't."