Dockless scooter company takes flight in Austin
Friday, April 6, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard
For the third time in four years, a brand-new technology-enabled transportation company has set up shop on Austin’s streets without seeking the city’s official blessing.
On Thursday morning, the California-based company known as Bird released what one company official described as “a relatively small number” of its dockless electric scooters in parts of South and East Austin. David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer, would not disclose the exact amount but told the Austin Monitor, “There’s not thousands and not hundreds.”
Like the dockless bike-sharing model that was the focus of an Austin Transportation Department-sponsored community forum just one day before, Bird’s dockless scooters are free-floating vehicles that riders can unlock using their smartphones and rent by the minute.
Also like dockless bike-sharing, the city has no regulatory framework to deal with the scooters.
The focus of Wednesday morning’s forum was to begin a community discussion about the development of a pilot program for dockless bike-sharing that could be launched as early as this summer. ATD’s Active Transportation Program Manager Laura Dierenfield told the Monitor on Wednesday evening that dockless scooters likely would not be a part of that pilot.
On Thursday, Estrada said, “We just wanted to get something started so we can start gathering data on what usage looks like. … Our view is, oftentimes what happens is there’s an attempt to regulate before something gets to the market, and when you try to do that, you often create the wrong regulations because you really don’t know what the effects are yet.”
He insisted that the company had reviewed all relevant state laws and city ordinances before putting its scooters along South Congress Avenue, in East Austin and near the Zilker neighborhood.
“So we’re happily complying with the laws, and to the extent that the city later wants to regulate it, we’re happy to work with them on that process,” he told the Monitor.
Estrada said Bird came into existence just six months ago. The company has a presence in cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It relies on teams of independent contractors to keep the scooters appropriately distributed and maintained.
The company says the contractors remove the scooters from their public perches each night starting at 8 p.m. for “storage, charging and necessary repair.” At 7 a.m., the contractors return the vehicles to businesses that have agreed to host the machines. Users can rent them from those establishments but are not required to return them there.
The question of how the scooters are parked on public right of way raises the same concerns that have dogged dockless bike-sharing. Estrada explained that the company uses “education” via its app to instruct riders how to properly abandon their rent-a-rides.
“We instruct them to drop them in the same places as you would see bikes parked or other scooters parked, to put them up against buildings, not blocking (the sidewalk),” he said.
The app also runs a tutorial about rider safety, a point that a fact sheet provided by a Bird spokesperson emphasizes as a company priority. That sheet states that the vehicles can only achieve a top speed of 15 miles per hour and are intended to be ridden in bike lanes or in the streets rather than on sidewalks.
Said Estrada: “The good news is that nobody’s gotten seriously injured in this kind of way yet.”
During a brief field trip to South Congress Avenue, the Monitor saw several people riding the scooters in both the bike lane and on the sidewalk. One group of young men were preoccupying themselves with three of the scooters near an Austin B-cycle dock on Elizabeth Street. When asked why they weren’t interested in the bikes, one of the youths explained that the service was too expensive. Were they electric, he added, they would reconsider.
Instead, they took turns zipping around the block on the scooters.
“Now that Toys ‘R’ Us is closed, you can’t go ride these around the store anymore,” one of the crew remarked.
Chris Parker, a tourist from Westchester, New York, explained that he had the app on his phone from a recent visit to California. While visiting the bustling shopping district on Thursday, he pulled out his phone, activated the app and was delighted to find the scooters nearby.
“This is making South Congress a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a lot better than riding in a car.”
That sentiment plays into the purpose that Estrada said Bird wants to fulfill. Its spontaneity and ease of use, he explained, could reduce automobile reliance.
“I think what it shows is how much people need this kind of thing to complete those 1- or 2-mile trips that they’re currently doing with Lyft or Uber that are putting lots of cars on the road,” he elaborated.
Bird’s sudden entrance into Austin’s increasingly diverse mobility scene echoed two prior incursions by app-based services. The state ultimately created a final framework governing transportation network companies after Uber and Lyft sparked a years-long battle when they rushed into town in 2014. The ongoing development of a dockless bike-sharing pilot is meant to address pressure from that industry after several companies briefly burst onto the scene during the South by Southwest festival in 2017 before ATD shut them down.
In early March of this year, Bird signaled an imminent launch in Austin when it began posting ads for independent contractors on Craigslist.
Estrada said the company had communicated with the city, including meetings with City Council members. After reaching out to the 10 district representatives on Thursday, the Monitor was only able to confirm with Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office that any such meeting had taken place. According to an aide, no details about Bird’s upcoming launch were discussed.
An ATD spokesperson also said that the department had no previous discussions with the company prior to Thursday. However, after the scooters were deployed, city staff met with Bird officials to discuss “how to move forward.”
A statement released on Thursday evening following the meeting did not indicate any impending action to disable or impound the company’s scooters.
“It is important that all businesses occupying the public right of way do so under the proper permits and procedures so they do not present a public safety hazard,” the statement read. “We are excited about welcoming any new and innovative ideas to Austin’s transportation scene and look forward to supporting these ideas in compliance with state and local law.”
That lined up with what Council Member Ann Kitchen, chair of Council’s Mobility Committee, told the Monitor.
“My hope is that they understand that the city of Austin is a city that’s innovative and that we are all about working with transportation companies on options. But that requires the companies to work with us,” said Kitchen, who also noted that the company did not reach out to her office.
Bird appears to be ready to offer the city an incentive to keep it on the streets. Estrada said the company will save $1 per each of its scooters operating on the streets per day. The company will offer that sum to the city as revenue for future safety improvements.
He explained: “Cities sometimes will say, ‘How can we control the number of these vehicles?’ And the way we think about that is, we think that’s the wrong question. The right question is, ‘How do we get more of these vehicles on the road and more cars off the road?’ And there is an infrastructure component to that.”
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