‘Scooter wars’ come to Salt Lake City with the addition of a second dockless company — and more may be coming

Fast on the heels of its competitor Bird, Lime dropped 250 dockless e-scooters on city streets Friday — and city officials say more businesses may be coming.

The “scooter wars” have officially come to Salt Lake City as part of a breathless boom of innovation that’s infiltrating cities across the country at a rapid pace.

“It’s very fair to say that this wasn’t here a year ago, and it seems like it’s come out of nowhere,” said Gabriel Scheer, Lime’s director of strategic development. “And now there are two very sort of big companies jockeying very quickly to get live in lots of cities and change how people get around cities.”

Bird landed in Salt Lake City at the end of June, with no notice to the city and without a business license. The company removed its bikes from the streets shortly after, when city officials issued Bird a warning for its lack of compliance with business regulation rules. After that, the city scrambled to draft a temporary operating agreement to regulate the new technology. Bird brought back its scooters after signing that agreement on June 20 — and Lime was quick to follow.

“We had been working with the city before Bird got there and trying to help the city create a regulatory framework that would enable us to operate,” Scheer said. “And now there is such a framework, so here we are.”

Bird and Lime are similar in many ways. Their services are the same price — $1 to rent, plus 15 cents per minute — and neither has a docking station, meaning riders can drop the scooters wherever their commute ends. Both require customers to be at least 18 years old and to bring their own helmets.

Scheer said Salt Lake City residents will benefit from having competition in the scooter marketplace.

The company noted in a news release, for example, that Lime is the only dockless e-scooter company that produces rider education videos “geared toward informing riders about safety and how/where to park responsibly,” and Scheer said the company’s approach is based around community engagement and collaboration.

Salt Lake City’s temporary operating agreement will govern companies like Bird and Lime until the City Council can craft and approve a new city ordinance. It requires companies that offer dockless mobility devices to share aggregate data about how many people are riding and puts limits on where scooters can be left (they can’t be dropped in driveways, on private property or sidewalks).

The agreement also leaves open the possibility for Salt Lake City to have more scooters than bigger cities like Chicago, New York and Washington have approved. A company could have up to 500 scooters if it fulfills the city’s geographic requirements — and with two companies in town, there could now be up to 1,000 in city limits.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman rides a Lime Scooter, in downtown Salt Lake City, Monday, July 30, 2018.

At a Salt Lake City Downtown Community Council town hall meeting addressing the scooters on July 19, Council Chairman D. Christian Harrison said he felt a lot of excitement about the new technology. But, he said, that enthusiasm needs to be tempered with better regulation than the city’s agreement currently provides — particularly as more scooters flood public streets.

“The city really kind of just punted on this,” Harrison said. “This is an agreement, you know, like Trump’s agreement with North Korea. It’s a wink and a handshake. … I have low confidence that it’s going to do what we need it to do.”

He’s concerned about the possibility for such a high number of scooters and that taxpayers may end up footing the bill for enforcement and maintenance. Harrison also said he’d like to see a requirement that the companies collect their own dockless devices at the end of each night in zero emission vehicles instead of paying collectors to gather and charge them in their own homes.

“This is an opportunity for us to innovate,” Harrison said. “But the city cannot be the one who pays the lion’s share of the costs — whether they are real costs or they’re the intangible costs of making this project city friendly.”

Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City’s transportation director, said the temporary operating agreement is open to change and that the city is working actively to address concerns about oversaturation, emissions and who pays for what.

“When there’s something brand new, that can be tough to do things exactly the way that you want to yet,” Larsen said. “But again, this is our chance to learn. … We’re trying to stay humble and be willing to learn and make adjustments.”

City officials can cancel the agreement at any time and have said they will re-evaluate it monthly to determine whether to make changes. The city has also set up an email address to field questions, comments and suggestions about the agreement and the new scooters at dockless@slcgov.com.

Larsen said the city has heard from a number of additional companies that are interested in bringing their own dockless vehicles to Utah’s capital. But as far as whether there’s a “scooter war,” Scheer said, he doesn’t think it’s among the providers.

“I don’t see this as a war against a competitor,” he said. “From my perspective, we are doing work that our competitors are doing as well, and the main competitor here is 100 years of the single-occupant vehicle as the dominant paradigm for getting around cities. … In terms of our competitors, we’re all just a drop in the bucket compared to the single-occupant vehicle.”