Salt Lake City threatens to crack down on e-scooters to reduce sidewalk ridership

The Salt Lake City mayor’s office has avoided “heavy-handed rules” related to the thousands of e-scooters that began flooding streets last summer, said Jon Larsen, the city’s transportation director, in an email he sent this week to the transportation companies that provide them.

But, he warned, that era soon may come to an end amid an ongoing stream of emails and calls to the city from residents concerned about sidewalk ridership and as the City Council is set to consider an ordinance regulating the scooters within the next few weeks.

“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.”

Salt Lake City has yet to pass a formal ordinance governing scooter providers. In the meantime, the companies have been regulated under a temporary operating agreement that requires them to share aggregate data about how many people are riding and that puts limits on where scooters can be left and how many can be dropped in city boundaries.

While scooter advocates have lauded their many benefits — including as a way to bridge the gap in a person’s last mile from mass transit and to reduce car trips to ease traffic, congestion and greenhouse emissions — the new technology has also come with challenges.

Sidewalk scootering has been the biggest problem in Salt Lake City, leading to several injuries and likely contributing to a 160% spike in emergency room visits here involving e-scooters last fall, with injuries ranging from broken noses, wrists and shoulders, facial lacerations, fractures and blunt head trauma.

To address those problems, the mayor’s office is working on a “walk your wheels” campaign to help inform people to use the bike lanes, Larsen said in his email. The city is also “strongly considering” a process to limit operations to one or two vendors, and the ability to show results on limiting sidewalk ridership would be one of the top criteria for that selection process.

Also under discussion are mandatory slow zones, scooter-free zones and curfews, Larsen said, “if we don’t see dramatic progress on this issue."

While some people view sidewalk ridership and any resulting injuries as evidence of an inherent scooter risk, others say it demonstrates a need for improved bike lanes so people feel safer on the streets.

“Respectfully, if you would stop prioritizing cars over other modes and build more bike infrastructure, this would be far less of an issue!” Salt Lake City resident Mike Christensen, executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, wrote in a tweet to Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski in response to Larsen’s email. “I wish this much concern was being shown to automakers and other auto-related industries for the constant threat posed to people walking, biking, and riding scooters in our community."

Despite wide agreement for needed improvements, the city “wants the scooter program to work," Larsen told The Salt Lake Tribune at a council meeting Tuesday. “They’re a popular thing and they’re still incredibly safe compared to a car.”

Though he hasn’t yet seen a draft of the ordinance that will regulate the scooters, Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke told The Tribune that he’s supportive of efforts to reduce sidewalk ridership, which is the “No. 1 complaint” he hears about the new devices.

“It is incumbent on the scooter companies to do a better job educating their users about what the policies are and that Salt Lake City does not allow scooters to be ridden on sidewalks," he said. "Having ridden them, I support the idea of the scooters, but the companies have to do a much better job helping with the education so the city is not just stuck having to enforce on this issue.”

One of the potential elements of a future ordinance that could address these issues, Larsen has said, could be to set up downtown scooter parking areas the companies would pay into in an effort to restrict where the devices are left.

The city currently has four e-scooter companies operating within its boundaries: Lime, Spin, Bird and Razor, which offers several sit-down scooters.

A Spin spokeswoman said in an email that the company has spent among the most “time and resources” working to address this problem, including through the recent funding of an intersection refresh at 300 East and 700 South that’s part of a larger effort to “rethink how streets can be designed for multimodal use."

The company also plans to place stickers on its scooters that say “no riding on sidewalks” and to get that message across in the app and through emails to riders.

A Lime spokesperson said the organization also uses an in-app notification displayed to riders reminding them of sidewalk rules. The company is also seeking to attach larger, more visible stickers with those policies to the scooters in addition to the print that’s already on them. The company is also considering placing tags on the handlebars of the devices encouraging people not to park or ride on the sidewalks.

The other companies could not be reached for an immediate request for comment Tuesday on the email, which was shared with The Tribune after Biskupski posted screenshots of it to Twitter.