SALT LAKE CITY — While the proliferation of rentable, electric scooters in Utah's capital is currently hovering at around 1,000 vehicles, local transportation experts' testimony on the new systems before a legislative committee Wednesday was overwhelmingly positive.
The response is notable as so-called dockless mobility companies have been earning mixed reviews across the country with host cities taking a wide variety of actions following the arrival of the new transportation systems, including doing nothing, imposing strict rules, implementing outright bans or launching legal action.
Dockless companies, like Lime and Bird Rides Inc., both of which are currently operating in Salt Lake City, rent scooters and bikes for rides via a smartphone app, and instead of needing to be returned 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.
Lime's Director of Strategic Development Gabriel Scheer told lawmakers his company, which just celebrated its 6 millionth ride after 14 months in business, is focused on filling an unmet transportation niche.
"Our vision as a company is to make things work better in cities," Scheer said. "And specifically to do so by making mobility more sustainable, more efficient and more equitable."
Scheer said one of the biggest challenges for Lime, and other efforts that are disrupting old transportation assumptions with new, tech-driven options, is creating comfort with the unfamiliar. He noted that going back 100 years and envisioning how a horseback rider might be assessing the arrival of the automobile may lead to some of the same questions being asked of new ideas, like dockless electric scooters. Where do you leave it? Why are there so many of them? And, why do we need them?
Salt Lake City transportation officials had anticipated the arrival of Lime, Bird and others, and though Bird flew into town unannounced in June, the company took a hiatus shortly afterward to allow the city to assemble an operating agreement aimed at laying some ground rules for the new system. The process, which relied on input from operators as well as some guidelines created by the National Association of City Transportation Officials, led to an outline of operating requirements that all dockless companies must adhere to if they want to operate in Salt Lake City.
Jon Larsen, the city's transportation director, told the Deseret News that the overarching goal of the contract is to ensure public safety.
"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."
Larsen noted that, thus far, complaints and/or issues related to the scooters have been minimal and the city is currently gathering additional information via a survey effort. Sidewalk riding in the central business district is prohibited by longstanding municipal code for scooters and bicycles and is an issue that Larsen said "is probably the most difficult, complicated thing."
Residents or business owners who encounter issues or have scooter-related questions can contact the city via [email protected]
Utah Transit Authority Director of Governmental Relations Matt Sibul told the committee that most public transit users, around 80 percent, walk to their nearest transit connection. He noted UTA views innovations like dockless scooters in a positive light as another option to connect people with buses and trains.
"Bottom line for us at UTA is anything that helps our customers get to the transit system and connect to it, we’re absolutely embracing that," Sibul said. "We’re also looking for opportunities to partner with Bird and Lime and others committed to this market. … Ultimately, these are all users of the transit system."
According to Scheer, Lime has racked up some big user numbers in just 2 ½ weeks in operation in Utah. He said about 10,000 riders have made over 30,000 trips, traveling over 40,000 miles in that time.
While no current state laws prohibit the operation of the vehicles rented by Lime and Bird, there is one rule that applies specifically to motorized scooters that the companies would like to see modified. That prohibition forbids powered scooters from being used on roadways with four or more lanes or with speed limits in excess of 25 mph.
City officials agreed with scooter operators that the best approach would be to make rules identical for all bikes and scooters, since they essentially operate at about the same speeds and in a similar manner. Members of the Transportation Interim Committee sounded amenable to reviewing that rule and potentially modifying it in the next session.13 comments on this story
Scheer noted his company has encountered similar challenges in other cities, where it's sometimes the case that standing statutes just don't account for new transportation modes, like powered scooters. He also noted that Lime, which operates other dockless systems including standard as well as electric-powered bicycles, is interested in expanding its offerings to Salt Lake residents.
"We'd love to launch our e-bikes here," Scheer said.
Larsen said while only two companies, Lime and Bird, have so far secured business licenses and begun operations in Salt Lake City, several other companies have expressed interest in launching additional dockless mobility systems.