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What to do about e-scooters? Salt Lake can learn from other cities

Bird scooters are ridden on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.
Bird scooters are ridden on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Dude, where’s my scooter?

Not in a parking spot meant for cars, on a TRAX train platform, or within 15 feet of a building’s door, if a proposed ordinance is approved by the Salt Lake City Council.

The city is asking for the public’s feedback on a draft ordinance in an attempt to attach some regulations to the popular motor-assisted scooters that have become ubiquitous on the streets of Salt Lake City and around the world.

Figuring out how to regulate the dockless scooters since they first landed in Salt Lake in June 2018 has been a challenge, especially since the city had just weeks to prepare for their arrival, said transportation director Jonathan Larsen. But having hundreds of other cities in the same boat, from Dallas to Paris, has made things a little easier. The result has been a mass learning experience, with cities borrowing successful practices from each other and constantly evolving in their solutions.

The Salt Lake ordinance was drafted after researching best practices in peer cities, Larsen said, even borrowing some language from similar ordinances. Meanwhile, University of Utah researchers have begun a collaborative study with the University of Arizona, scheduled to wrap up next year, looking into e-scooter safety in Salt Lake City and Tucson.

“Cities across the nation and world are grappling with this and moving ahead and it’s been really great to see what they’re able to do,” Larsen said. “At a time when people are discouraged with government dysfunction, I think it’s relatively encouraging to see how quickly cities are able to adapt and make changes and keep up with the times.”

E-scooter renters push with their legs to get the scooter going as they cross Main Street in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 19, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Salt Lake City’s proposed scooter ordinance

The scooters in Salt Lake and other cities have brought with them a slate of safety concerns, especially when it comes to interactions between scooters and pedestrians. Last month, a group of downtown Salt Lake residents told the City Council they didn’t feel safe with scooters on the sidewalks and asked the council for stricter regulations. The scooters, one resident said, “have turned our beautiful downtown into a giant skate park.”

The proposed ordinance would prohibit scooters from riding on any sidewalk that a bicycle isn’t allowed on, and would require scooter-riders to obey traffic signs and traffic control devices.

It would also limit where the scooters can be parked. Under the proposed rules, scooters could be left either in a designated scooter parking area or in any place that is not in any multi-use path, in the travel lanes of a road, in a vehicle parking space, on a TRAX or FrontRunner boarding platform, anywhere that affects access to a UTA bus, within 15 feet of a building’s door or driveway, within 30 feet of an ADA ramp, anywhere that impedes the use of a docking station for scooters or other mobility devices, and any other areas prohibited by the city.

“Really what it does is provide a really good structure and framework on which the administration can work on some of the implementation details,” Larsen said.

Future steps could include limiting the number of scooter vendors in the city to just one or two, which would allow the city to form a stronger partnership with those vendors, Larsen said. The ordinance would also lay the groundwork for the city to charge higher fees to those vendors. The fees are currently several hundred dollars, Larsen said, but “should be in the tens of thousands.”

What scooter rules look like in Portland

While Salt Lake doesn’t currently have designated scooter parking areas, a number of other cities, such as Denver, do. The purpose of mentioning them in the ordinance is to “just make it a thing” if the city creates designated parking areas in the future, Larsen said.

Portland, which is in its second year of an e-scooter pilot program, has similarly implemented a laundry list of where-not-to-park guidelines. It also has some, but not many, designated parking areas.

John MacArthur, sustainable transportation program manager at Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center, has been studying the pilot program. He said he’s noticed scooter use is “much more calm and orderly” this year than it was last year. And while the official research isn’t complete yet, the early results show increasing compliance with the parking rules.

“Partly that is a growth aspect of both the city and the corporations that are working within the city,” MacArthur said. “But also the people using the devices, in that when (the scooters) first came out they were fun and weird and no one knew what to do and how to use them. Now people are much more attuned to them so they know, ‘Hey, I can’t just leave this scooter wherever I want.’”

Enforcement of parking rules varies from city to city, MacArthur said. In Portland, parking attendants fine the respective vendor when they find a scooter somewhere it shouldn’t be. The vendor then looks up who last used the scooter — and reviews the required photo each user takes of their scooter when they dock it — to determine who was at fault and whether to pass the fine onto them.

Portland’s program, similarly to the Salt Lake ordinance, bans scooter-riding on the sidewalk. Both the city and scooter companies have made an effort to educate people on the rule, MacArthur said. While using a scooter recently, he noticed a sticker on it reminding riders that using a scooter on a sidewalk results in a $50 city fine.

But whether people actually stay off the sidewalks likely depends on whether they feel safe in the street or in a bike lane, MacArthur noted. While there aren’t any studies yet on the correlation between safe infrastructure and scooter use, existing research shows that cycling rates go up in cities where bicyclists feel safe.

“If (scooters and other micromobility devices) are to succeed in cities, they need to have safe places to ride,” MacArthur said.

Still more to learn

Since publishing the Salt Lake draft ordinance for public feedback, reactions have been generally positive, Larsen said. He said he’s continued to hear the same concerns — which he describes as “very valid” — about the risks of scooters on sidewalks.

“We hear people and we’re working on making things better,” Larsen said. “We appreciate people’s patience as we work on our processes.”

The frustrating thing, Larsen said, is that when it comes to making big decisions about public resources and infrastructure, the process is inherently slow.

“You can’t just do things,” Larsen said. “You have to have due process and work through things and get people’s ideas and feedback, and that takes time.”

Typically, the city would spend several years collecting public input and researching options for an initiative like this. But the scooter companies, which “kind of just showed up unannounced,” took cities around the country and world by surprise, he said.

After watching the scooters show up in Santa Monica, Calif. — and the controversy that ensued — Larsen told his team to start laying the groundwork should scooters make their way to Salt Lake City. About six weeks later, they did, thrusting Larsen and the rest of the city into a learn-as-you-go situation.

But Salt Lake City is not alone. Hundreds of other cities around the globe are learning, too. MacArthur sees promise in a “good verbal dialogue” occurring between cities and scooter vendors. And the conversation about how best to maximize the efficiency and accessibility of scooters — while keeping riders and everyone around them safe — is just beginning.

At a recent gathering, leaders and researchers from all over exchanged ideas, best practices, and potential future steps for scooter regulation. In Paris, there’s talk of limiting scooter parking to designated parking areas only, MacArthur said. And the concept of creating separate lanes for scooters and other micromobility devices is gaining traction, though no city has implemented the idea yet.

“It’s changing all the time,” MacArthur said.