SALT LAKE CITY — During a recent trip to China, I marveled at the flow of traffic in Beijing. Bicycles, scooters, electric motorcycles and strange little motorized contraptions flowed at various speeds along the lanes closest to the sidewalks. Traditional cars, buses and trucks sped along the center lanes.
Red lights seemed more like suggestions than authoritative traffic regulators. My wife and I gazed with wonder at a woman on a motorized bike with several children hanging on in load-equalizing symmetry.
This seemingly chaotic scene was described to us as a type of inward harmony, with drivers anticipating each other’s moves and measuring them against their own wishes.
I’m not so sure about that. Granted, we never saw an accident during our two weeks in Beijing, but the frequent competition of wills seemed more like the dissonant bleats of a beginning grade-school band than a harmonious, well-tuned symphony.
But it seemed to work. Now I’m wondering what a communist country can teach American cities about all this.
If China’s economy is centrally controlled, its traffic seems like a free and competitive marketplace at work. A lot of cities in this country, meanwhile, say they revere the free market but would prefer central control on the roads.
In Salt Lake City, the San Francisco-based scooter company Spin, a subsidiary of Ford, the automaker, recently entered the e-scooter-for-hire market, joining competitors Bird and Lime, which have been here a while now.
These scooters seem to litter streets all over the city. Users can access them with a smartphone app that activates their electronic motors while also charging a rental fee. The same can be said for the green bicycles at various bike stands throughout the city’s core.
This burgeoning chorus of transportation choices has city councils in knots from coast to coast. Some of the nation’s most liberal cities seem to be in an existential crisis as they fret over bikes and scooters that are supposed to be eco-friendly but that anger a citizenry more comfortable with the relaxed, old-fashioned traffic flow.
San Francisco has limited its scooter population to two companies, after initially banning them. Seattle won’t let them operate at all.
The Centers for Disease Control studied scooter injuries in Austin, Texas, and found less than 1 percent of the victims were wearing a helmet. Meanwhile, media reports about a woman in California who was beaten to death by a man wielding a scooter have raised worries that cities will grapple with increased crime because of the new vehicles — as if a crazed attacker wouldn’t use a stick or some other object if a scooter wasn’t at hand.
Meanwhile, reports say scooters are wearing out quickly. Whether parked or in use, they clog sidewalks like the exoskeletons of expired insects. Pedestrians don’t like them.
Peer into the future and it can be easy to see Beijings cropping up all over the land. Lyft and Uber compete with taxis for fares; buses, cars and trucks compete with ride-shares, e-scooters and bike riders. In the sky, delivery drones block the sun as they rush to carry Amazon orders and pizzas to anxious consumers.
Well, relax and quit worrying. This is a free market gut check.
If you believe in the power of the market, you know businesses can’t succeed long by losing money forever. Equilibrium will come.
In the meantime, cities do have a role to play, at least when it comes to enforcing safety rules.
Unfortunately, Salt Lake City capped the number of vehicles any company can provide for immediate rent at 500. The city now is considering changing that to allow up to 20 percent more if companies can show they have a demand for more, which is somewhat better.
But why set caps at all?11 comments on this story
Governments are never so arrogant as when they pretend to know how much of something people want. Only the people can figure that out, collectively.
In truth, Salt Lake City and other American urban centers are in no danger of becoming like Beijing overnight.
Cities shouldn’t be afraid of current attempts to revolutionize the way people get around. They should pass common-sense safety ordinances, but they should stop trying to pick winners and losers in the struggle to define the future of transportation.