SALT LAKE CITY — At least Utahns haven’t taken to setting electric scooters on fire, throwing them in trash cans or vandalizing them with dog poop, the way people have in some California cities.
Not yet, anyway.
They haven’t taken to throwing them in rivers by the thousands, the way folks are doing in parts of China — not that the Jordan River hasn’t had some interesting deposits over the years.
That last one is interesting, by the way. The last time I was in Beijing, about a year ago, the streets were clogged with cars, electric bikes and scooters, three-wheeled motorized carts, bicycles and virtually any other wheeled device known to man. Someone explained the traffic flow to me as a sort of harmony — a rhythm locals felt as they navigated streets and intersections.
No one seemed to care what type of vehicle he or she encountered.
The scooter vandalism, then, may be about more than just the scooters, themselves. That said, we all need to learn to dance better.
Scooter sharing arrived in Salt Lake City this summer, first as a surprise and then as a licensed and regulated form of transportation. Riders download smartphone apps that allow them to unlock a scooter for about $1 and ride around for about 15 cents a minute. They pick up one wherever they find it, then leave it wherever they wish.
One of the largest of these new companies is Bird, whose founder is Travis VanderZanden. He is the former CEO of the ride-share service Lyft, where he no doubt learned the strategy of simply starting up a disruptive service and asking for permission later.
That may explain why hundreds of Bird scooters suddenly showed up on Salt Lake streets in June before the city decided to write rules and officially license them. Those rules now limit two-wheeled ride-share companies to 200 vehicles in the city’s central business district. If they put 100 vehicles in the oft-neglected west side, they are allowed 200 more in places outside of downtown.
But who’s counting?
No, really, who’s counting?
I walked around the downtown area Tuesday morning. My first impression was that Utahns may be more polite and orderly than folks elsewhere — certainly in keeping with stereotypes. The parked scooters I saw were neatly stored at the edge of sidewalks, away from pedestrian traffic.
But then I looked at the people who actually were riding them. More than half of the dozen or so I encountered were on a sidewalk, some at or near the scooter’s 15 mph limit. Not one rider I encountered, on a street or a sidewalk, wore a helmet.
And thus the problem, and the hatred, and, perhaps, the vandalism.
Across the nation, pedestrians worry about sidewalk safety, drivers worry about cluttered roads (Americans have no rhythm) and other folks worry about stacks of unused vehicles being left willy-nilly.
A free-market capitalist at heart, I appreciate the way entrepreneurs are finding ways to disrupt entrenched transit monopolies while saving the environment.
For decades, taxis dominated the market, and their unions got cities to artificially limit the number of cars on the road and the fares they could charge. Then Uber and Lyft came along, using smartphone technology to provide cheaper, more convenient rides. Now that technology is being applied to rental bikes and electric scooters, aimed obviously at a young adult crowd. Coincidentally, the startups are doing quite well. Bird is valued at more than $2 billion, according to CNN Tech.
Over time, the market will determine how many scooters and bikes best meet the demand in any city. Companies won’t be able to afford to keep a large fleet of unused vehicles on the streets.
But demand is different from public safety.
When you sign up to ride, the app makes it clear you must stay on roadways only, and with a helmet. The first time a scooter collides full-speed with a pedestrian, the whole industry could be forced to ride the next government-subsidized Amtrak out of town.
Cities have a legitimate role in monitoring safety and clutter, and they should do so aggressively.
A poll released by Qualtrics this week found 55 percent of Americans believe scooter sharing is here to stay. But it also found 49 percent believe sidewalks will be less safe, while 56 percent of drivers said they are more nervous behind the wheel with scooters around.
Much of the vandalism elsewhere seems to be motivated by the opportunity to post a YouTube video or perhaps, in China’s case, of silently protesting the government.
But in urban areas like Salt Lake City’s downtown, the new guys do indeed need to learn to play nicely with everyone else trying to get around, no matter how fun their rides may be.
Americans may not have much rhythm on the roads, but we can’t all march to our own drummers.