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E-scooters: Urban blight or sweet new ride? Utah residents weigh in ahead of council vote

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E-scooter riders make their way down Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In a divergence of opinion reminiscent of the Hatfields and McCoys, Salt Lake residents either love the rentable, electric scooters that descended on the city a couple of years ago and want to see more of them, or can’t stand the zippy two-wheelers and are clamoring for city government to clamp down on their use.

A Deseret News records request netted a year’s worth of emails to Salt Lake City Council members as well as the results of a recent survey conducted by the city that asked for residents’ sentiments on a package of proposed ordinance changes aiming to address issues that have accompanied the proliferation of e-scooters.

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Snow-covered e-scooter are pictured on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The rule changes were discussed at a council work session late last year and are expected to return to the city’s legislative body in the next few weeks for further consideration and a formal vote.

The chasm that separates e-scooter proponents and detractors, as well as Salt Lake City’s efforts to find a happy regulatory medium, both reflect what’s going on nationally as the disruptive honeymoon era of e-scooters comes to an end and local governments across the country — with a few notable exceptions — work to accommodate a new transportation mode that appears here to stay.

A house divided

The preponderance of emails directed to Salt Lake City Council members over the past year about e-scooters have railed against their use, with many citing hazardous sidewalk encounters as well as haphazard parking.

One downtown resident who wrote that e-scooter riders were “threatening pedestrians on a daily basis” called for an outright ban on the “dangerous vehicles’ but in lieu of that, would like to see ramped-up enforcement.

“While I feel the city should ban the use of e-scooters and e-bikes completely, at a minimum, they should be controlled with city ordinance and strict enforcement,” the emailer wrote. “I and all other downtown residents walking the sidewalks face the physical threat and the emotional toll of unexpected severe injury on a daily basis, which is destroying the livability and walkability of downtown Salt Lake. Our time for action is now. We need a member on the City Council to lead us through the process of either banning or strictly controlling and enforcing these dangerous vehicles.” 

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City statute has long prohibited riding bicycles, scooters or any other wheeled conveyances on sidewalks in the downtown area, but it also happens to be the area where scooter distribution and ridership is most concentrated. The temporary operating agreements in place with the four companies offering e-scooters in Salt Lake call for citywide distribution and include incentives for placing the vehicles where transit connections are less prevalent, like west of I-15. Some e-scooter fans have pointed out that sidewalk riding, even while banned, just turns out be the place where riders feel the safest.

“I am PRO scooters,” another council e-mailer wrote. “I understand some people feel unsafe with scooters however there are many things that can make individuals feel unsafe and we can’t regulate them all.

“If you are concerned (about) people riding on the sidewalk then make the streets safe so riders will ride there. I have felt very nervous riding the streets because I don’t feel drivers are aware of scooter riders.”

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E-scooter are pictured on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Survey says

Adding additional murkiness to the e-scooter debate are the results of a survey overseen by Salt Lake’s transportation department that sought to gather input on the e-scooter ordinance proposal. The effort garnered over 800 responses from residents with most of those saying they had ridden an e-scooter at least once and over 250 respondents indicating they were at least somewhat regular riders.

About a quarter of survey participants said they supported a ban on e-scooters on downtown sidewalks, but a plurality of respondents, about 36%, said scooters and other “personal mobility devices” should be allowed everywhere, including downtown sidewalks, as long as riders are moving along at the same pace as pedestrians.

And a solid majority of survey takers, over 62%, said they’d prefer education over enforcement when it comes to navigating e-scooter related issues. It’s worth noting that several of Salt Lake City’s current e-scooter vendors have been running pubic outreach and education campaigns, but most of the survey participants, over 450, had not seen or been aware of those efforts.

The fix is in?

Salt Lake City Transportation Director Jon Larsen said the results did lead to some minor tweaks of the initial ordinance proposal but, overall, indicated the city was likely on the right path to rule making. The ordinance package does not include any changes to the current ban, but would establish a plan to identify and implement increased enforcement. One idea that’s found some success with Portland, Oregon, city officials is using cameras to identify e-scooter-related malfeasance. Enforcement personnel there can take pictures that capture unique identifying numbers on the scooters’ front tubes and using time stamps, the infractions can be matched with the riders via scooter vendor data, and fines assessed after the fact. Portland is currently assessing fines of $15 for improper parking and $50 for illegal sidewalk riding. Serial offenders can have their accounts suspended or canceled. Larsen noted the strategy may be effective for Salt Lake City.

The ordinance may also lead to new rules governing the parking of e-scooters, with requirements for all riders to submit a cellphone photo of the vehicle parked appropriately at the end of their ride. And the city is considering the creation of designated parking corrals that, once in place, would eliminate scooters being left randomly wherever a ride ends.

Perhaps the biggest change likely to come if and when the changes are adopted by the council is the pursuit of a competitive request for proposal process that would likely, according to Larsen, carve the current field of four e-scooter vendors down to two. Limiting e-scooter business to two vendors, Larsen said, would lead to both figurative and literal dividends for the city.

“I think a competitive RFP process is a critical piece in our ability to make progress on the biggest scooter issues,” Larsen said. “By having fewer vendors with a competitive process it allows us to improve accountability, forces vendors to up their game, be innovative and put in the effort to make a difference on the issues.

“And if they’re not fulfilling their end of the agreements, we can go out again in a year and bring someone else in.”

Larsen noted the cost of doing business in Salt Lake City for e-scooter vendor is also heading up. Currently, the companies are only obligated to an annual business license fee of a couple hundred dollars, according to Larsen. City finance officials are putting together a new fee schedule for e-scooter vendors that will be aiming to recover the administrative costs incurred by the city. The new fees would also create a revenue stream that could help pay for new infrastructure such as parking corrals, as well as increased enforcement activities.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she’s looking forward to seeing the ordinance package and is hoping for a workable plan that both looks to protect the city’s walkability while also accommodating e-scooters as a viable new facet of multimodal transportation solutions.

“There is no doubt in my mind that e-scooters and e-bikes are part of our transportation infrastructure going into the future,” Mendenhall said. “Getting there is going to require many different steps. Ensuring the pedestrian-friendly environment that we’ve invested a great deal in creating downtown is one that remains safe for pedestrians is absolutely a priority.”

It’s us, and them

Cities across the U.S. have been working to navigate the advent of e-scooters since they made their domestic debut in Santa Monica, California, in late 2017. Utah became part of the e-scooter market when Bird scooters showed up — unannounced — on the streets of Salt Lake City just after the start of summer in 2018. Now, dozens of cities have employed various strategies and rule changes to help address the downsides of the vehicles while trying to accommodate their use. Larsen has noted that while the pedestrian encounters and parking issues do need to be addressed, the carbon-friendly vehicles themselves have contributed to solving short commute challenges as well as first and last mile connections to transit stops. Adam Kovacevich, head of government relations for the Americas for Lime, a company operating in Salt Lake City and a number of other Utah communities, said in an interview with National Public Radio earlier this week that the disruptive tactics of the early days of e-scooters were far behind.

“What you see now is cities talking to each other about the best ways to regulate this,” Kovacevich said. “Communities do want, in most cases, scooters to succeed.”

While a few cities, and the entire state of New York, have banned e-scooters, accommodation is much more the norm among local governments, and guidelines have emerged to help communities navigate how to deal with the new vehicles. Last fall, the National Association of City Transportation Officials released its “Guidelines for Regulating Shared Micromobility” which provides a set of strategies and best practices for communities working to make e-scooters work.