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The City Journals

Reactions mixed as e-scooters take over Sugar House

Dec 17, 2018 01:43PM ● By Spencer Belnap

A string of freshly charged Lime e-scooters await riders one foggy morning in Sugar House. (Spencer W. Belnap/City Journals)

By Spencer W. Belnap | [email protected] 

Residents in Sugar House and beyond were given a new option for short distance travel in 2018 — electronic dockless scooters, or e-scooters. 

First to arrive was the company Bird, dropping dozens of their battery-powered scooters onto the streets of Salt Lake in the summer. Bird’s chief competitor, Lime, dropped theirs soon after. These two Silicon Valley-based companies have done this across the nation the past year. They have infiltrated major metropolises without warning and at a rapid pace. Whether people like it or not, these e-scooters appear to be here to stay. 

Resistance from city officials doesn’t deter these growing companies. Instead, they drop unexpectedly and eventually work their way to proper city licensure and approval. Salt Lake City forced them off the streets when they first sprouted up in June. Bird and Lime had to create agreements that included licensing, safety regulations, and limits on scooter quantities. They were granted one-year operating agreements just in time for the busy summer months. Seemingly overnight, e-scooters were everywhere often alarming drivers and pedestrians.

“I think they’re unsafe,” Sugar House resident Laura Gurr said. “You have people zipping around on them not paying attention to traffic. I panic anytime I have to drive through the Sugar House shopping center.”

In certain cities, people have become so upset about the scooters they have vandalized them or destroyed them. If anyone is caught stealing or damaging one, a hefty fine and possible criminal charges are issued. 

Similar to the two main ride share companies Lyft and Uber, they are each accessible via an app on a smartphone. Riders set up by downloading the app, entering in their information, and agreeing to various safety and regulatory terms. A unique QR code by the handle bar is scanned to power up the scooter. 

Bird’s e-scooters can travel up to 15 miles per hour, while Lime’s can get up to 20. They cost $1 to activate, plus 15 cents for every minute thereafter. A helmet is supposed to be worn while riding, and users are to ride on bike lanes or side streets that do not surpass 25 miles per hour. 

According to a neighborhood poll on Nextdoor, riders rarely adhere to these rules though. Most travel on sidewalks and never wear a helmet. They have created these stipulations for legal reasons, but neither Bird nor Lime seems to be enforcing them on actual city streets. 

Bird and Lime did not respond to requests for this story. 

“I think they’re stupid,” Amy Suvorov, frequent Sugar House visitor, said. “Only for the fact that those who use them never obey traffic rules.” 

Regular riders admitted their lack of rule following as well. 

“I’m about 60 percent roads, 40 percent sidewalks,” regular e-scooter rider Chris Toronto said. “Just depends on how much room on the street I have. I’ve never worn a helmet, mostly due to the fact that whenever I decide to ride, I don’t have my helmet available. I probably still wouldn’t even if I did.”

Toronto works for a property management company in Sugar House. He only has the Bird app downloaded on his phone, and typically pays anywhere from $2.50 to $4.00 for a two- to five-mile ride. 

“I usually only ride them a couple times a month,” Toronto said. “If I need a convenient one-way trip from my office to the mechanic, or when I’m parking for an event and want to get to the event more quickly.”

Many cities initially wondered what benefit the scooters would have on local economies. Just like Amazon delivery service and Lyft drivers, there is a side gig option for people. Local residents can become employees for either company. The main jobs available in each city involve gathering the scooters, charging them up at night, and dropping them back onto streets in the early morning.  

Bird calls the people who do this for them “bird catchers.” Lime calls theirs “juicers.” If you sign up to be a part-time “bird catcher” or “juicer” you use your own vehicle and gasoline to drive around picking scooters up. It’s a digital scavenger hunt each night for the dozens of employees. The companies provide the charging stations. Employees charge as many of them they can overnight in their homes or garages. In the morning, before 7 a.m., they drop them back off in bunches in designated areas of the city. 

Nate Everts is a dog groomer for a business in Sugar House. He thought about adding some supplemental income by working for Bird or Lime at night, but hasn’t applied as of now.

“I was considering becoming a charger,” Everts said. “Probably not feasible for me though given my vehicle.” 

Everts drives a sedan, but thinks a truck or SUV would be ideal for more space. Somewhat decent gas mileage would also benefit would-be chargers.  

“Bird catchers” or “juicers” may gather just a few scooters each night, or they may get up to 10 the longer they work for the company. The harder it is to find the scooter, the more money they are worth. Chargers are paid daily for the work they did the night before. The positions are marketed as a convenient way to make an extra $20 to $30 an hour. It is not clear if that factors in additional gasoline and electricity charges for employees. 

As the new year dawns and winter comes into full swing, most e-scooters will be removed from city streets though. 

Lime hopes e-scooter lovers are willing to swap out for their new e-bikes that are now on city streets. They hope these are used frequently, even in the winter. Their e-bikes are also dockless and powered by batteries. They cost the same amount as the scooters and are available through the same app.