Luke Garrott: A note to the next mayor about e-scooters

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sidewalk stencil on 300 South, is part of a a new campaign with the City of Salt Lake and e-scooter companies Lime and Bird in an effort to help residents and visitors understand the rules of the sidewalk, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018.

Salt Lake City Transportation Director Jon Larsen wrote a stern letter to e-scooter companies last month about their customers riding on sidewalks. Larsen threatened more rules, restrictions, even bans, if companies can’t show progress on the issue.

I also read his words as a threat to the public.

Because it’s us who decide where and how to ride the e-scooters in question. It’s people who sometimes behave badly in traffic.

As an experienced transportation engineer, Larsen knows why people act certain ways in transit. For example, the design of the street and its surroundings will dictate the speed of drivers, regardless of the posted speed limit. Everyone drives faster when given wide lanes and a high focal point on the horizon.

Urban designers and traffic engineers looking to slow car traffic agree that elements like narrower lanes, a tree canopy and active sidewalks help make the street like an outdoor room, more livable for all users.

What is true of people in cars applies to other road users. Design dictates behavior more than rules on posted signs. Our sidewalks are not designed for bicycles and e-scooters traveling faster than pedestrian speed. That’s why we’re annoyed when they’re there.

Yet we need to ask: Why are scooters and bikes on sidewalks? It’s probably because they don’t feel safe in the street.

That’s a design failure that lies at the feet of the city, not the e-scooter companies.

If the city actually wants to change people’s behavior on e-scooters, its transportation engineers know what to do.

They are blessed with the country’s wealthiest rights-of-way, twice the width of most cities’ streets. Why not a protected “slow lane” for vehicles going up to 15 mph? That would get bikes, e-scooters, skateboards and whatever comes next off the sidewalk.

Fifty percent of Americans say they would ride a bike more often if it were safer. That’s pent-up demand. E-bicycles are attracting scores of recreationists and retirees. Skateboards are a legitimate form of urban transportation.

The potential for a “micro-mobility revolution” is significant, where people stop jumping in their cars for trips under two miles. Those trips make up 30% of vehicle miles driven.

If e-scooter riders are on the sidewalk, it’s probably because they don’t feel safe in the street. We can fix that with design and infrastructure changes, while we make streets and sidewalks more pleasant and safer for everyone.

The next mayor can make significant progress on air quality, personal health, urban design, road safety, the vitality of storefront retail — all by retrofitting our streets to accommodate all users.

The transportation department has the technical solutions. What they need is political leadership.

Luke Garrott. Courtesy image

Luke Garrott is an editor at BuildingSaltLake.com. He is a former councilman in District 4, Salt Lake City.