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Council discusses electric scooters in Moab

  • Updated
  • 3 min to read

At the city council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, councilmembers heard a presentation and discussed the possibility of a partnership with Bird, a dockless electric scooter company, in Moab. No action was taken on the item.

Bird’s Senior Account Executive Mike Butler gave a short presentation to the city council at their April 27 meeting. “Our mission is [to] make cities more livable and bring communities together by providing an affordable, environmentally-friendly transit alternative,” he said. Founded in 2017, Bird is the fastest company to ever reach a valuation of $1 billion and serves 150 cities globally, offering 10 million rides in their first year.

New riders first download the Bird app, sign their user agreement and verify that they are over 18 years of age. They then watch educational tutorials about how to ride the scooter, park it and other regulations specific to the city they are in. Scooter riders essentially follow the same rules as cyclists; they can ride anywhere within an “operating zone” and park in a “furniture zone,” both of which Moab would designate. Scooters must be parked away from heavily trafficked pedestrian areas and so that they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Moab could also delineate “no ride zones,” where the electronic scooters would automatically slow themselves to a stop, and “slow ride zones” where the scooters reduce their speed. Before walking away from their scooter, riders must provide photo proof to the app that their scooter is parked upright and in a designated parking zone.

Butler said that Bird would like to begin in Moab, potentially in June, with a fleet of 75 electric scooters and one fleet manager, who would be a local resident who knows Moab inside and out. “They essentially run the business better than we ever could,” Butler said. The fleet manager would “know the area and want this venture to succeed.”

In 2019, the Utah legislature passed Senate Bill 139, which reads that “in regulating a shared scooter or scooter-share program, a local authority may not impose any unduly restrictive requirement on a scooter-share operator.” Essentially, Moab likely cannot ban electric scooter companies from operating in the city, but the city can impose certain restrictions.

Assistant City Manager Carly Castle outlined what possible restrictions could look like for the city council. “My concern is that prohibiting them outright is ‘unduly restrictive.’ We need to try and find a path forward for the regulation of a scooter share operator in Moab,” she said.

One option would be managing scooter share companies through an ordinance. The advantages, according to Castle, are that an ordinance would be consistent across companies, automatic and allow law enforcement to play a more active role in their management. The pitfalls include navigating statutory limitations, no ability to restrict the number of scooter companies in Moab — meaning that any company who met the ordinance could operate in the city — and that revoking a license with a scooter company would require due process. Moreover, Castle pointed out, can one ordinance fit all types of electronic scooters?

There are also several restrictions if Moab decided to pursue a scooter ordinance due to Senate Bill 139. For example, city-imposed fees cannot exceed “reasonable and necessary costs” for the scooter company, scooters must be permitted on each city block in a commercial zone or business district and scooter rider requirements cannot be more restrictive than those applicable to privately-owned scooters or bicycles.

“If we went the ordinance route, we would need to find designated staging areas on every single block on main street on each side, which takes up a lot of space.

We have to regulate them consistently with bicycles, which is a huge issue because we allow bikes everywhere and at different speeds here in town,” Castle explained.

Another option is a temporary operating agreement: flexible, specific, temporary contracts tailored to each company that can be terminated. The city could also specify additional regulations as part of the negotiation. However, such agreements can be cumbersome, lack cohesion and make enforcement more difficult.

The last possibility Castle presented was a request for proposal. Such a proposal would solicit bids from qualified scooter companies, making the proposal competitive and tailored and allowing the city to limit the number of companies operating in town. The downside is that Moab does not currently have the information or infrastructure to support this kind of proposal at this time.

Castle then proposed two courses of action for the council: begin negotiations with Bird or conduct scooter-related public engagement as a part of the city’s unified transportation plan, which will begin in June. The plan will outline specifics of all types of transportation in Moab, from vehicles to bicycles, and the city could begin negotiations with Bird afterwards. The council unanimously decided to pursue the second option, meaning that discussion was tabled.

“I don’t feel like we have the infrastructure right now to support this. I don’t know where we’re going to find docking areas,” said Tawny Knuteson-Boyd. “I feel like if we move forward with this now, our residents would tar and feather us. We need to look at where we want our town to be in five years.”

“This will give us the time to look at other communities for examples, look at data and look at the bigger picture for all things transportation as we get through the unified transportation plan,” said Mayor Emily Niehaus. She also expressed concerns about Moab’s main street — technically Highway 191 — and the safety of scooter riders next to large semi trucks and Moab’s consistent congestion due to tourism.

The city council will consult Moab residents through hearings and other engagement, as well as outline the unified transportation plan, before making a final decision about electric scooters in Moab.