Most scooter riders using the sidewalk are afraid of cars, new survey shows

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A person riding an e-scooteron the sidewalk is reflected in a business at the corner of Broadway and Main Street, Salt Lake City, Sept. 17, 2019

As Salt Lake City officials threaten to crack down on dockless e-scooter companies that don’t do enough to reduce the number of users riding on sidewalks, new data suggests solutions to the problem go beyond education efforts.

A survey conducted by Lime, one of four e-scooter companies currently operating within the city, found that the primary reason users say they’re not on the streets isn’t because they don’t know the rules but because they fear for their safety riding next to fast-moving cars.

“Most people do not prefer to ride on the sidewalk,” Jonathan Hopkins, Lime’s director of strategic development in the northwestern United States region, said of the results. “But in cases where the sidewalk feels to them as the only safe place, they have a tendency towards that.”

The email survey of 614 Lime users whose latest ride was in Salt Lake City found that sidewalk ridership increases by 310% when no bike lane is available; when one is, 82.2% say they ride in it.

Seven in 10 respondents said they would never ride on sidewalks if there were protected bike lanes, and more than 50% said painted bike lanes would help. Nearly half said greater enforcement of scooter regulations by police with a $50 ticket would have the same effect.

Only 11% said a public awareness campaign would do “a great deal” to reduce how often they ride in a sidewalk.

The company recently shared its findings with Salt Lake City officials, and Hopkins said it conveyed that “enforcement seems to be a very viable tool” since it could be implemented in the near term. Ensuring that roads are safe for all users and not only for motorists (the fear of 57.6% of Lime’s scooter users) should be the next step, he said.

While scooter companies have lauded the many benefits of their devices — which they see as a way to bridge people’s first and last mile of transportation, encouraging them to get out of their cars and onto public transit and thereby reducing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions — not everyone has been pleased with their rollout in the city over the past year and a half or so.

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

Jon Larsen, the city’s transportation director, said in an email to the scooter providers last month that the city was “strongly considering” a process to limit operations to one or two vendors and noted that the ability to show results on limiting sidewalk ridership would be one of the top criteria for that selection process. Also under consideration are mandatory slow and scooter-free zones and curfews.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scooters have become a common sight in downtown Salt Lake City, Monday Sept. 10, 2018.

The vendors are currently regulated under a temporary operating agreement that, among other things, puts limits on where scooters can be left and how many can be dropped in city boundaries. The Salt Lake City Council is expected to consider a formal ordinance governing their use in the coming weeks.

Larsen said Lime’s findings about the need for better bike lanes were “fair” in some instances and particularly in dense and congested areas.

“I see the proliferation of scooters as a great opportunity to highlight the need for better bike infrastructure throughout the city,” he said — though the challenge is that takes both time and money.

And while Larsen said he’s generally been pleased with the efforts of vendors over the past month in reducing sidewalk ridership, he argued they’re not powerless to address the problem.

“It’s true that they can’t give out tickets and do that sort of enforcement, but there’s a lot that they could do that they’re not yet,” he said, noting that the companies could encourage people to send in photos of sidewalk riders and implement extra fees for those who haven’t been following the rules of the road.

Lime’s survey did not ask users about whether that kind of measure would reduce their sidewalk ridership.

At a recent City Council meeting, more than half a dozen downtown residents expressed support for greater enforcement around scooter use, telling horror stories about almost being plowed down by quiet and fast-moving scooters whizzing by on the sidewalks.

“Scooters are a genuine hazard to pedestrians,” said Wayne Hilbig, who told of several near misses he and his wife have had on the sidewalk.

Denise Taylor, a retired medical doctor, told the council that she was “extremely concerned about the threat to public safety from scooters downtown” and encouraged the city to insist on “strict ongoing police enforcement” of scooter regulations.

“If this does not occur,” she said, “Salt Lake City will be known as a city that failed to act responsibly in protecting public safety.”

Following the city’s warning of a future crackdown, several companies have been working on efforts to keep scooter users on the roads. Lime recently launched a patrol program to help inform people about city regulations, though it has no way to enforce those rules. The organization has also sought to educate its users through an in-app notification displayed to riders reminding them to keep off the sidewalk.

Bird has taken similar measures, providing in-app safety messages and helmet giveaways.

Spin recently funded an intersection refresh at 300 East and 700 South that it said is part of a larger effort to “rethink how streets can be designed for multimodal use.” Maria Buczkowski, senior public affairs manager at Spin, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday that the company is working toward gathering data that will help it evaluate the success of that measure in making all users feel safer.

Razor said it has been sending in-app banner notifications to riders reminding them to keep off the sidewalks and to ride in bike lanes when available. It is “continuing to explore additional avenues to promote responsible riding,” Brandon Cheung, the company’s senior manager of government relations, said in a statement.