SALT LAKE CITY — The latest in high-tech, shared transportation systems — rentable electric scooters — have been operating for months in some U.S. metros, but on Thursday, the controversial setup made its debut in downtown Salt Lake City.
Bird Rides Inc. operates networks of battery-powered electric scooters designed for getting riders around in urban settings with a transaction system that runs entirely off a phone app. The scooters themselves are not unlike a kid's Razor, only with a beefier and heavier frame to accommodate the battery pack and small electric motor, and fatter tires that can handle cobbles and cracks. The controls and operation are simple — a couple of kicks before you engage the thumb-operated throttle on the right and a hand brake on the left. The scooters can travel at up to 15 mph. and have a range of about 15 miles on a single charge. Riders are charged $1 when the rental begins, and 15 cents per minute of use.
The company has been greeted with a variety of responses in the locales it has chosen to launch in, ranging from acceptance and celebration of a clean-energy alternative to cars to outrage and threats of litigation.
Mark Rogers, a Millcreek resident who works downtown, gave one of the Bird scooters a spin on Thursday. He said he'd read about the company and was excited to see its scooters near his office.
"It's a fun little toy," Rogers said. "A way to ... escape whatever stress you might be dealing with at the office for a quick minute and zip around safely."
Rogers said his first ride was "a little nerve-wracking" but that it only took a few minutes for him to get the swing of it.
Salt Lake City transportation officials told the Deseret News Thursday that they had some notice the company was planning on launching in the state's capital, but didn't have an exact date. Transit program manager Julianne Sabula said the city is hoping to work with the company, as it did with the GreenBike bike share program, to make the system work as yet another option to get around downtown.
"In a conceptual sense, we're very excited about this kind of innovation," Sabula said. "We're all about finding new ways for people to get around without having to get in a car."
One big differentiating factor from the city's popular GreenBike system, which has rentable bikes that are picked up from a docking station and returned to another, is the scooters are "dockless." Unlike GreenBikes, Bird scooters are intended to be left wherever the user terminates their ride. While instructions in the Bird app direct riders not to leave the scooters on the sidewalk or any other public right of way, where the vehicle ends up depends on a user's good will and common sense.
Sabula noted her office is well-aware of issues that have cropped up in other cities that Bird, and other similar electric scooter network operators, are doing business in. Those issues include accidents involving scooter riders and pedestrians, scooters operating in roadways and hindering auto traffic flow and, perhaps most notably, the scooters being left lying on sidewalks, roadways, private property and other places where they impede pedestrian traffic or create headaches for business and property owners.
San Francisco officials took the action of issuing a cease-and-desist order to Bird and two other companies earlier this month, buying time to create some manner of permitting system. A San Francisco Chronicle storynoted, "The scooters’ popularity with riders was mirrored in antipathy by pedestrians, who complained that they were being ridden and parked willy-nilly on sidewalks, obstructing the right of way."
In anticipation of the eventual arrival of a dockless system like Bird's, Sabula said work has already begun to assess how city statutes, permits and licensing rules will, or will not, apply to this new transportation option.
Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City's transportation director, said Bird was one of a number of firms that operate alternative transportation networks that are "venture-funded, for-profit companies that come in, often unannounced." He underscored his hopes that the company would be an engaged collaborator with the city and that its operation wouldn't undermine GreenBike's success.
"At a minimum … we'd want to make sure it’s done in a way that enhances and builds upon what’s been done by GreenBike rather than cannibalizing from the gains that we’ve made," Larsen said.
He also noted that Bird appears to be taking an operating approach that opts for starting service first and figuring out logistics and partnerships at some future date.
"Some (share transportation companies) work really hard to work with a city and come in the front door, so to speak, and others kind of come through the back door and figure out the details later," Larsen said. "And the company that launched today has gone the latter route."
A Bird spokeswoman confirmed to the Deseret News that while the company had not yet secured a Salt Lake City business license, it had "submitted the necessary paperwork" to secure a license. She declined to detail exactly how many scooters had been dropped in Salt Lake City but it appears from the locator map that's part of the company's phone app that there are about 100 scooters in the downtown area.
When asked about what work the company did in assessing the rules and regulations it needed to abide by before launching in Salt Lake City, the spokeswoman said the company "ensures it is always operating in accordance with all the laws and regulations on the books."
Bird debuted its e-scooter system in Santa Monica, California, last fall. Currently, the company is operating in about two dozen U.S. cities.