You’re in downtown Salt Lake City without a car and need to get from point A to point B. What do you do?
You have options. You could hop on TRAX — free within the downtown area — rent a GREENbike or e-scooter, call a Lyft, or keep it old school and walk.
Or, if you’re the staff of The Salt Lake Tribune, you could try all the above with a slightly juvenile race.
When the dockless e-scooter companies Bird and Lime arrived in Salt Lake City — seemingly overnight — last month, it made something of a splash in The Tribune’s newsroom.
Reporter Taylor Stevens has been covering the so-called “Scooter Wars” that have left flocks of black Birds and bushels of bright-green Limes on the city’s sidewalks. Naturally, the war begs the question of which scooter company is superior, and the topic was a point of casual debate on The Tribune’s government desk.
At some point, a suggestion was made that The Tribune stage a race between the two scooter options. But unlike many — many! — other harebrained schemes reporters have joked about in the past, no one quashed the scooter race idea. As a result it grew to its logical extreme, and things got a little weird.
Six racers agreed to participate. Digital News Editor Rachel Piper would use the ride-share app Lyft. Columnist Robert Gehrke and reporter Taylor Stevens would ride a Lime and a Bird, respectively. Reporter Benjamin Wood, a recreational cyclist, would take GREENbike. Reporter Lee Davidson, who covers the Utah Transit Authority for the Tribune, would ride TRAX. And managing editor David Noyce, known for his brisk stride, would walk.
The race began at the Salt Lake City Public Library — at 400 South and 200 East — and ended at The Tribune’s office building in The Gateway mall at 100 South and 400 West: a distance of one mile as the crow flies. With the exception of a checkpoint at the intersection of 300 South and Main Street, racers were free to choose any route.
A “winner” would be determined by a point system weighted for cost: one point per minute and two points per dollar spent.
And, like golf, the participant with the lowest score at the end of the race would be the champion.
Beyond those guidelines, and the need to stick to their assigned modes of transportation, the racers were free to do as they pleased.
Advantages • Faster than walking; cheaper than GREENbike and ride-share apps; no need to find a docking station at destination; leisurely fun.
Disadvantages • Glitch-prone; unreliable availability at departure point.
This project started as simply scooter vs. scooter, and in the end, our Lime and Bird riders both experienced technical difficulties that significantly affected their performance.
Gehrke, on Lime, was the second racer to arrive at The Tribune. But after he parked his scooter and tried to end his ride, his app failed to close the transaction and the resulting usage charge cost Gehrke the victory.
He’d also been forced to backtrack early in the race, after the Lime he located on the app was grabbed by someone else before he could reach it.
“Things got off to a rocky start,” he said.
But Gehrke’s bad luck was nothing compared to Stevens’. She was forced to complete almost the entire course on foot while struggling to locate and successfully unlock a Bird scooter. Her journey took twice the time of her Lime-riding counterpart’s.
She, too, was unable to find the first scooter she went after — it seemed to simply not exist where the app’s map said it was. And when she located a different Bird nearby, she realized the app would not allow her to unlock the scooter without her driver license, which she had left behind at the office to streamline her travel.
“I knew that you had to be over 18 with a valid driver’s license,” Stevens said. “But I hadn’t read anywhere that they required proof of that.”
Even if Stevens had convinced a stranger to lend her a driver license to unlock the app — and we’re not confirming she did — it was little help. The second scooter she tried to use was damaged and inoperable.
So were the next 11, which she found as she made her way back to the office on foot.
None of the damaged Birds was on the app’s map, Stevens said. But part of the e-scooters’ appeal, she said, is that a pedestrian can ostensibly hop on any scooter he or she finds in the city.
“It’s totally plausible that a potential Bird rider would be walking down the road, see a scooter and try to ride it,” she said. “Without considering opening the app.”
Four blocks away from The Tribune, on her 15th attempt, she successfully caught a Bird.
After the race concluded, Gehrke took a Bird back to his car at the library. He said he preferred the Lime scooter he’d competed on; it was a sturdier and smoother ride.
Lime • 15 minutes (2nd); $3.45 (4th); 21.9 points (2nd overall).
Bird • 42 minutes (6th); $2.20 (3rd); 46.4 points (6th overall).
Advantages • Docking stations at most downtown points of interest; reliable availability; speed; exercise.
Disadvantages • Perspiration; must walk to docking station and final destination; cost is meant for multiple uses over a longer period.
Full disclosure: the writer of this report is the GREENbike racer, so I’ll dispense with third person for this section.
The race route, from the library to The Gateway, gave me a significant advantage on time. Both my starting and ending points have docking stations, requiring only a short jog on either end of the race. And because I get way into things like this, I pedaled my guts out.
What spiked my score was the cost. GREENbike’s pricing is built around multiple trips and routine use. Its cheapest option is $7 for unlimited rides over 24 hours. Other options include a four-day pass for $15 and an annual membership for $75 (active and retired military, students, teachers and senior citizens qualify for discounted rates).
In terms of only speed, I came in first, which suggests GREENbike is the fastest way to get around downtown if physical exertion is not an issue. But when factored through the calculation for our race, I finished middle of the pack.
GreenBike • 11 minutes (1st); $7 (5th); 25 points (3rd overall).
Advantages • Minimal effort; bespoke service; multitasking potential; air conditioning; speed.
Disadvantages • Driver roulette; cost; contributes to traffic congestion and pollution.
You might expect the Lyft to have beaten the bike and scooter to the finish line. In most cases, you probably would have been right.
Piper had two things working against her. First, her competitor on the GREENBike was something of an unhinged maniac (back to third person). Second, she lost the classic ride-share game of driver roulette.
After her car arrived, Piper was shuttled on — to put it delicately — a circuitous route, which took her south before turning around and going north, and then taking her west before circling back to the east and finally going west again. Had the Lyft driver’s GPS instructed him to turn into a lake, Piper said, he likely would have complied.
“I suspected that Ben on his bike would beat me, since he was wearing Spandex and has probably seen ‘Premium Rush’,” Piper said. “I did not think I’d lose to a dad on a motorized scooter.”
Editor’s note: Benjamin Wood has, in fact, seen “Premium Rush,” although he doesn’t necessarily recommend it.
Piper said she is typically an excellent back-seat driver, but the pressures of the race affected her performance — she awkwardly said “thank you” to one of The Tribune’s staff photographers — and her instructions to go through the checkpoint at 300 South and Main Street may have added to the route confusion.
The extra distance added both time and cost to Piper’s performance, plus a guilt-motivated double tip for the driver. She was able to edit stories and complete some work during the trip, but for the same cost, Piper said, she could have purchased two overpriced coffees or the e-book edition of “War and Peace” to read in its entirety while waiting for/riding TRAX.
“Pulling up to The Tribune and seeing Robert Gehrke already there, looking smug in his Hawaiian shirt, is one of the darkest moments in my life,” Piper said. “But I don’t blame Lyft.”
Lyft • 15.5 minutes (3rd); $8.75 (6th); 33 points (5th overall).
Advantages • Free (in the downtown free-fare zone, which stretches from 600 West to 200 East and 900 South to South Temple); dependable routes and schedules; multitasking potential.
Disadvantages • Speed; limited stops, multiple transfers; fellow-passenger roulette.
Like the GREENbike docking stations, TRAX operates a stop at both the downtown library and The Gateway. But it also requires transferring from the Red to the Blue line at the Courthouse Station, which can either be a seamless transition or a significant delay, depending on how well the trains line up.
On race day, Davidson was lucky to catch back-to-back trains.
His fellow travelers may not have felt so lucky to have a media star onboard — particularly one man who objected to the reporter filming himself during the ride.
“If you point that camera at me, I might just break it,” Davidson recalls the man saying.
After Davidson explained he was part of a transit competition, though, the man’s demeanor changed and he asked to share his perspective.
“TRAX is free here,” the man said. “It’s great.”
TRAX • 26 minutes (5th); free (1st, tie); 26 points (4th overall)
And the winner is … the pedestrian?
Advantages • Exercise; environmentally friendly; free.
Disadvantages • Slow; exhausting; bland.
Noyce was the clear front-runner for the first 50 meters or so of the race. While the other competitors scattered to find their modes of transportation, he was free to simply head for the office.
Before long, however, he was passed by the cyclist and the Lime scooter.
“I saw Ben pass me — all decked out in his cycling gear like it was the Tour de Tribune — about halfway down 300 South just before Main [Street],” he said.
Noyce said he passed several scooters on his path, and for the good of the competition resisted the urge to hop on (he did bring his driver license). After reaching West Temple, he started moving in a zigzag pattern toward The Gateway, letting traffic signals dictate his route.
“I may have left more leather shoe prints,” he said, “but I definitely left the smallest carbon footprint.”
His brisk pace and free mode of travel combined to give Noyce the fewest points and the victory.
Despite that, Noyce later made several remarks that his cycling rival had unfairly run to and from the GREENbike docking stations. Unfortunately, The Tribune did not have a score for sore winners.
Walking • 21 minutes (4th); free (1st, tie); 21 points (1st overall).
Tribune employees David Noyce, Rachel Piper, Robert Gehrke, Taylor Stevens and Lee Davidson contributed to this report.