Robert Gehrke: It’s way past time that Salt Lake City address the downtown scooter menace

Robert Gehrke

Raise your hand if this has happened to you: You’re walking up to a crosswalk, reaching over to push the button and have to jump out of the way of a scooter zipping along the sidewalk.

Or you round a corner and come face to face with a group of riders weaving between pedestrians.

OK, you can put your hand down.

Don’t get me wrong. I like scooters and what they provide in terms of ease, convenience, speed and frankly the fun of getting from point A to point B.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke rides a Lime dockless e-scooter from the Salt Lake City Library to The Salt Lake Tribune building, Thursday, August 2, 2018. ·

I also like being able to walk from place to place without dodging the morons who haven’t figured out where they do and don’t belong. Nothing that travels that fast should be on the sidewalks, but riders don’t seem to be getting the message.

This is not a new problem. San Diego, Washington, D.C., and countless other cities have been scrambling to get their ordinances, regulation and enforcement caught up to the scooter swarms that showed up.

Salt Lake City was lucky. We knew what was coming from watching other cities. I wrote way back in July 2018, when the first scooters and dockless bikes (Remember dockless bikes? Whatever happened to them?) were showing up that the city needed to be proactive in its approach to managing them.

A year ago, I challenged the city to have a draft ordinance by the end of the year.

Maybe city hall canceled its Tribune subscription.

Here we are, 14 months later and the city still hasn’t got around to even proposing an ordinance.

Through June, Bird and Lime have logged more than 900,000 rides covering nearly 1 million miles — probably no more than 800,000 of them on sidewalks.

We have seen scooter-related visits to the hospital increase by 161 percent, with patients suffering dislocated joints, sprains, fractures and some head injuries. Fortunately, nobody has been killed, although that has happened in other cities.

Scooters are currently governed by an operating agreement with the city. It was an adequate stopgap until the City Council could craft a more formal regulations.

We have also seen the landscape change dramatically, with two new companies — Spin and Razor — entering the market. The operating agreement lets the companies deploy up to 500 scooters, meaning on any given day we could have as many as 2,000 scooters zipping around within the city limits.

Scooters are left strewn around, blocking driveways and sidewalks, making it especially difficult for people in wheelchairs to navigate around them. And while it’s pleasant to see birds chirping in the trees, it’s less so to see a Bird scooter snapped in half hanging over a tree branch.

All of this finally prompted the city transportation director, Jon Larsen, to send emails to the scooter companies warning them that things are going to change.

“There is a sense that scooter riders feel entitled to the sidewalk, even when the sidewalk is crowded and even when they are next to a dedicated bike lane,” Larsen wrote. “They either don’t know or don’t care about the rules. We’ve made it clear that this is an important issue to the City since last summer, but we have seen little or no progress.”

It appears Larsen got the scooter company’s attention. They’re all saying the right things about being serious about reducing sidewalk riding.

But one of the things that has been missing is the robust public engagement that should have been taking place during the course of the past year to help shape the upcoming ordinance.

The city did do an early survey of people who have used scooters and, no real surprise, they like them, said Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. They also have those thousands of comments from people who don’t.

But there hasn’t been a formal effort to engage citizens — scooter riders or not — or business owners about what we want the city’s scooter program to look like and how we want it to function. Salt Lake police obviously have more pressing things to do than ticket scooter riders, so how do we enforce it? There still isn’t much discussion of helmet requirements and how to make those stick.

Rojas said that once the city issues its proposed ordinance there will be time for public input and there will also be opportunities for discussion before the City Council.

Other cities are way ahead of us on this front and national organizations like the National Association of City Transportation Officials have put together guidelines for regulating scooters and other shared devices.

So we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we do have to invent something that works for those riding on two wheels and ensures the safety and livability of downtown Salt Lake City. What’s abundantly clear is what we have now is not working.