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Dockless companies suspend operations after Council approves regulations

Monday, April 30, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Traffic-burdened Austin has one fewer mobility option after this weekend.

On Sunday, both LimeBike and Bird appeared to have removed their shared-use electric scooters from the city’s streets in response to City Council’s vote on early Friday morning that created a governing framework for so-called dockless mobility services.

Users of the LimeBike app were greeted with a notification on Sunday that read: “We’re putting the final touches on our scooters and bikes with the help of the City of Austin. See you in a few days!” Bird did not display a similar message, but its app did not indicate any scooters on the ground as of Sunday afternoon.

Both companies had forced Council to craft new rules to accommodate their new technology after opting earlier this month to begin operating in the city just as the Austin Transportation Department was kicking off a months-long process to develop a pilot program just for dockless bike-sharing.

Council began discussing the issue just after midnight on Friday, and after two hours of discussion and public testimony, all 10 members on the dais (Council Member Ellen Troxclair was on maternity leave) supported the new ordinance that addresses commercial uses on public sidewalks and creates a licensing regime for the companies.

That ordinance, which made operating a dockless mobility service without a license a class C misdemeanor and strengthened the city’s power to impound rogue scooters, went into effect immediately. On Friday afternoon, however, ATD said it “is working to establish the license and permitting process for these services as soon as administratively feasible.”

Under administrative rules still being developed by ATD, the companies will each be allowed to deploy 500 bikes and scooters, with the option to add more if they can provide service to areas outside of downtown. The city will collect $30 per vehicle, and the licenses to operate will be good for six months.

The brief early existence of dockless scooters in Austin appeared to demonstrate a latent demand for easy and affordable conveyances over short trips. While the scooters were not as ubiquitous as cars, central city streets and sidewalks were commonly dotted with riders zipping around.

The new technology that allows users to unlock free-floating bikes and scooters with an app is seen by supporters as a potential game-changer for urban mobility and policy. One critic, however, warned Council on Friday morning that it was moving too fast.

“There’s no reason to rush here,” Austin B-cycle Executive Director Elliott McFadden said. “There are, however, real threats to public safety and environmental impact that have not been addressed in this discussion.”

Pointing to other cities where dockless vehicles have been found thrown into waterways, McFadden suggested the electric vehicles’ lithium-ion batteries posed a significant threat.

“Are we willing to risk making Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake a Superfund site to give the companies what they want?” McFadden asked.

A quick survey of other stakeholders by the Austin Monitor revealed mixed feelings about dockless bikes and scooters.

Max Lakavage, manager of SegCity, a Segway tour company headquartered on Lavaca Street, said the scooters did not appear to have any impact on his business during their brief incursion. He explained that his patrons come for the guided tours of downtown rather than a quick means of getting from one location to another.

Keith Byrd, owner of Austin Bike Tours and Rentals, also said he doesn’t see the dockless companies as direct competitors. However, he said he witnessed eight collisions between scooter riders and pedestrians in front of his shop on West Third Street. The services, according to Byrd, lend themselves toward user fecklessness.

“We get comments from our tourist customers on what a clean city this is, how easy it is to navigate, how friendly the sidewalks are and how friendly the bike lanes are. And you’re going to compromise that with dockless bike-share. You’re definitely going to compromise that,” Byrd told the Monitor.

Bike Austin Executive Director Katie Smith Deolloz expressed hope that the new services will accelerate the city’s efforts to create safer infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.

“The city is being faced with the reality of what’s happening in transportation right now,” she said. “I think our mobility landscape will be strikingly different in two years, and I find that thrilling.”

In separate statements issued on Friday, representatives of both LimeBike and Bird lauded Council’s action and promised to work with the city to legally offer their services in Austin.

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