SALT LAKE CITY — Resident riders say they're not only having a blast, but finding ways to incorporate new, rentable e-scooters into their daily travels and want more of them in their neighborhoods, according to a just-completed survey and correspondence with Salt Lake City.
Yet negative sidewalk encounters between scooter riders and pedestrians are numerous, and both city officials and scooter vendors recognize it as the premier issue in search of a solution.
But the single biggest source of complaints about the new dockless vehicles tracks back to Salt Lake City's original purveyor of shared, two-wheeled transportation — GREENbike, a program that's holding its own but looking for new ideas since e-scooters appeared on the streets of Salt Lake City this summer.
For those not familiar with the new systems, dockless companies like Lime and Bird rent scooters and bikes for rides via a smartphone app, and instead of needing to be returned to a designated location or dock (like GREENbikes), they can be left wherever users finish their trips. Locating a scooter to rent is also coordinated by the app, which identifies available vehicles with a digital map.
A Deseret News records request of correspondence between residents and Salt Lake City government, via an email account the city established to field complaints and comments about the new vehicles, reflects scores of accounts from pedestrians feeling menaced by the scooters, which are prohibited (as are bikes) from operating on sidewalks in the downtown area.
Some residents have had in-person confrontations.
"Every time we walk now, we have close encounters with electric scooters," wrote one resident who lives near City Creek. "Especially when they silently come from behind us. It is very frightening for us to be so vulnerable to accidents caused by these scooters."
Some residents have observed roving groups of scooter riders flaunting traffic laws.
"Many times they’re ridden in 'packs', groups of three or more," wrote another downtown resident. "I’ve witnessed them zipping through a four-way stop one at a time, one after another, none of them stopping to see if there were cars moving into the intersection."
And some residents see the new networked transportation options as simply an eyesore.
"I wonder if any consideration has been given to the latest urban blight to appear — electric scooters," wrote one resident. "Something should be done about this business model. I'm sure Bird and Lime are making a lot of money off it but at the expense of ruining our streets and sidewalks."
Survey says ...
Illustrating the flip-side, perhaps, of the hundreds of complaints that make up the majority of the emails directed to the account since dockless scooters appeared in Salt Lake City back in June, are the results of a city community survey completed this fall.
Residents who participated in the survey gave the dockless vehicles mostly high marks and cited convenience, fun, availability and ease of use as the top things they like about the systems. They also provided valuable input, according to city transportation experts, about how the scooters are being used. While "fun" was the leading response, getting around quicker, running errands, getting to work and connecting with transit rounded out the top five reasons to ride.
And a question about whether respondents wanted to see "more or less devices per block" in their neighborhoods they responded with a resounding thumbs-up for more.
Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City's transportation director, told the Deseret News that the city is continuing to work with Lime, Bird, local law enforcement and elected leaders in navigating a solution to the leading bugaboo of the new dockless systems, the ongoing scooter rider vs. pedestrian dilemma. He expects a proposed set of ordinance changes will be ready for consideration by the City Council sometime in spring 2019.
"The biggest thing in front of us right now is the sidewalk issue," Larsen said. "We're working with the vendors … and considering other measures like new reporting options and enforcement. Education on the safe operation of scooters and bikes is also playing a big role in this."
Gabriel Scheer, Lime's director of strategic development, said the issue of scooters on sidewalks is not unique to Salt Lake City (and some locales are even working toward keeping scooters off streets and on sidewalks) and that his company is committed to working with the city to improve operations. He also noted new and better technology could help mitigate the situation.
"Education is key," Scheer said. "We need to better educate everyone on safe operation … and Salt Lake City has been an awesome partner and working with us on the education effort.
"Right now, our (global positioning system) isn't accurate enough to know when a scooter is on a sidewalk … but we're getting better and better with the technology."
Larsen noted many of the early issues with the scooters' arrival in Salt Lake City have been addressed. Those include scooters being positioned too close to bus stops, sidewalk ramps and other conflict areas, which include a 50-foot exclusion area around GREENbike stations, stipulated by the city's operating agreements with Lime and Bird.
Scores of emails from GREENbike, particularly in the first couple of months after the e-scooters' debut in Salt Lake City, sought to keep the city notified of scooters being left in and around the nearly three dozen stations the program operates. As a matter of efficiency, city officials asked GREENbike staff to start corresponding directly with Lime and Bird about scooter-related issues.
Ben Bolte, GREENbike's founder and executive director, said Lime's branding scheme — one that includes bright green paint jobs that are similar to GREENbike's color scheme — hasn't helped.
"A lot of the issues are just about people not being aware that these are different programs," Bolte said. "There has been some legitimate confusion … and we still get calls from people asking us to come pick up our scooters at such-and-such address."
While Lime and Bird both started out this summer just offering electric scooters for rent, Lime recently added electric bikes to their Salt Lake offerings. Both companies appear to represent direct competition with GREENbike, but Matt Sibul, the chairman of the program's board of directors and director of government relations for the Utah Transit Authority, said ridership data reflects little impact from the new dockless providers.
"Honestly, there was a lot of consternation and hand-wringing from the GREENbike perspective when these guys came to town," Sibul said. "The concerns were market share was going to plummet and nobody was going to be riding GREENbike anymore … and that just hasn't happened."
Sibul, along with the city's Larsen and Lime's Scheer, all believe that there's enough room, and interest, in Salt Lake City for the productive and harmonious co-existence of a portfolio of networked active transportation systems.
Scheer said, from his company's viewpoint, the collective foe is the automobile and the multiple, negative impacts of combustion engine-powered transportation.
"From our perspective, we are not competing with GREENbike, we're competing with the car and cities built for cars," Scheer said. "We're all working toward creating a bigger pie of options for those who choose to leave their cars behind."
And a bigger pie with more options for Salt Lake City users of e-scooters, e-bikes and GREENbikes appears to be already in the oven.
More on the way?
Larsen said plans are underway to establish designated parking areas, in the form of stenciled scooter "corrals", which would allow Lime and Bird to expand beyond the current 500-vehicle limit currently imposed by Salt Lake City. Under terms of the operating agreement, the vehicle cap may be expanded with the addition of these parking areas by the individual vendors.
And Bolte outlined GREENbike's plans to grow in the coming year, with the goal of building the current system of 370 bikes to around 700 and almost doubling bike docking slots to around 1,200.30 comments on this story
The expansion will also include moving GREENbike's current territory further south, east and west of downtown. There may also be a new option coming online, according to Bolte, that would allow GREENbike annual pass holders to check out bikes for 12-hour stints.
Larsen said having more players who share the goal of getting cars off the streets and making a dent in the automobile's contribution to air quality degradation is a net positive.
"I've heard the term applied to this mix of providers as 'co-opetition'," Larsen said. "They're all working toward the same thing, and driving each other to do better, and that's what we really like to see."