Gehrke: Dockless bikes and scooters may be the future, but Salt Lake City needs to get serious about regulation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scooting up South Temple, a rider of Bird, a dockless e-scooter company that aims to help people with the last mile of transit, takes advantage of one of the recently dropped scooters in downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. The city who was initially not notified of the new company is trying to bring them into compliance with ordinances and regulations and create an operating an operating agreement for them to work under.

If I take my kid’s old 10-speed out of the garage, put some air in the tires and dump it on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, am I littering?

Nope. I’m an entrepreneur.

I’ve just created the latest in a growing number of companies “deploying” dockless bikes and scooters downtown.

I don’t even need a business license to operate BobBike. After all, the dockless electric scooter company Bird didn’t have one when it dropped scores of motorized scooters around downtown recently.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

The idea is intriguing: Check out a bike or an electric scooter through the app on your phone, ride it, pay for your time, and leave it anywhere without having to find a station. Convenient, right?

But the convenience comes at a cost, as other cities have struggled with how to deal with piles of bikes clogging sidewalks or left in yards. San Diego is playing catch-up. So is Washington, D.C.

Now Salt Lake City is, too. The city was caught completely flat-footed when Bird came flitting into town, even though cities from Seattle to New York to San Diego have been grappling with how to regulate the dockless bikes and scooters.

Currently, the city doesn’t have licensing requirements, safety regulations, or any limits on how many bikes and scooters can be scattered around.

Now, officials are scrambling to come up with an operating agreement to put some of those limits in place.

It’s the same game of catch-up we saw when Uber first came to town and the city was completely unprepared.

It’s not terribly surprising. Bird, the first to deploy electric scooters in Salt Lake City, is led by Travis VanderZanden, a former Uber and Lyft executive and has seen the strategy work again and again: Drop your scooters and then carve out a toe-hold in the market while the bureaucrats play catch-up.

To their credit, Bird has pulled its scooters off the road for now. The other big dockless bike and scooter companies haven’t moved into town. But it won’t be long before BobBikes and the rest filter in.

The city’s draft operating agreement has some necessary limits on the operations of Bird and possibly other such companies. For example, it requires the companies to share aggregate data about how many people are riding, puts limits on where bikes can be left (they can’t be dropped in driveways, on private property or obstruct sidewalks), and it seeks to ensure underserved west-side communities have access to the service, as well.

But the proposed agreement is lacking in other areas: The city needs to insist on more rigorous safety assurances, more teeth on the enforcement end and more transparency.

For example, the city needs to make sure the streets aren’t flooded with bikes haphazardly strewn around. Under the proposed agreement, Salt Lake City could allow more bikes than Chicago, New York, Washington and Boulder have approved.

New York, for example, has approved 200 bikes each for five companies. In Chicago, vendors can deploy up to 250 bikes each. Salt Lake City is looking at up to 500 per company with no limit on the number of companies.

The proposed agreement says that the bikes and scooters “will be regularly inspected and maintained,” but doesn’t specify how often those inspections will occur or what constitutes “regular” maintenance. It has been an issue. This week, The Seattle Times reported that random tests of dockless bikes found one in three was unrideable.

The agreement needs to make clear that the electric scooters, that can easily clip along at 15 mph, are not to be ridden on sidewalks, where they present an obvious danger to pedestrians.

Milwaukee sued Bird this month because of repeated problems with the scooters being used on sidewalks, in violation of city ordinances.

Salt Lake City needs enforcement officers to field complaints and be out on the street making sure the dockless companies are complying with the requirements — something that is not provided in the current agreement. And it should be paid for by the dockless companies, which have raised hundreds of millions in venture capital.

Companies should have to pay for bikes and scooters that have to be moved or, say, pulled out of bodies of water (in China, where dockless bikes are a big thing, workers recently pulled 3,000 bikes out of a river).

The city should receive accident data, in addition to the general rider data, so we know if bikes or scooters pose a risk to the public.

And the city needs to guarantee that the dockless companies don’t do what Uber did and just go to the state Legislature to undercut city regulations. If they do, they should agree to forfeit their license. Companies have already tried this kind of legislative end-run in Oklahoma and Florida (and fortunately come up short).

This may sound like a lot of regulation that could stifle innovation. But we’ve seen the problems these dockless bikes and scooters have created pretty much everywhere they’ve gone.

If they work, they could be an asset to the city, taking cars off the road, easing congestion and making public transit more realistic.

But Salt Lake City leaders will only get one chance to stand up for residents and they shouldn’t be timid about doing so.