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Dockless scooters and bikes zip through Mobility Committee

Wednesday, April 18, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council’s Mobility Committee learned on Tuesday afternoon that when it comes to dockless bikes and scooters, the last foot is the technology’s biggest problem.

That was the message at least from Jason JonMichael, assistant director of smart mobility with the Austin Transportation Department.

Along with Austin Transportation Director Rob Spillar, JonMichael briefed the committee on the department’s request for an accelerated process to tweak local law and authorize permits by May 1 for companies that provide free-floating electric shared-use mobility services, otherwise known as dockless bikes and scooters.

ATD had been banking on a much more deliberate schedule for the development of a Council-approved pilot program that originally was planned to be operational closer to the end of this summer. However, two companies – Bird and LimeBike – jumped the gun and dumped hundreds of their electric, app-activated scooters on Austin streets this month.

In a memo sent to Council on Monday, Spillar conceded that local ordinances don’t specifically ban this brand-new business model and that the reality of the companies’ operations merited prompt action from Council.

Both the dockless bikes and scooters are designed to solve for what’s known in transportation circles as the first-mile/last-mile problem: the segments at the beginning and end of trips that can often discourage people from using public transit.

However, after showing a string of photographs of bikes and scooters strewn haphazardly on sidewalks in other cities, JonMichael offered that the last few inches of trips involving the new gadgets are where the gremlins live.

“The biggest issue is that last foot and how (the scooters are) put up,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re probably not going to be able to get everyone to put them up correctly. So if the company cannot ensure that their customers can put them up correctly, whose responsibility is it to make sure that the safety of everyone out there is protected?”

He answered that question himself, saying, “I believe that, through this process, it would create the business environment such that the taxpayers do not have to bear this cost to maintain safety on the sidewalks, that it could be borne by the private companies that are operating in town.”

In the meantime, city resources are being expended to collect Bird and LimeBike scooters that users have left on sidewalks in a way that obstructs safe passage for all users. JonMichael told the committee that his team is keeping track of those costs and suggested that the city might seek compensation from both companies.

In his remarks, Matt Shaw, Bird’s director of government relations, maintained that his company’s activities are entirely legal. He claimed that Bird launched a “small demonstration pilot” in East Austin and on South Congress Avenue, though the firm’s scooters also have a heavy presence in downtown Austin. Since going live on April 5, he said, 5,000 people have tried the service, riding a total of 20,000 miles.

Shaw also expressed reservation about the staff recommendations, including the 500-vehicle cap per company. Instead, he suggested a more demand-responsive system.

Brian Kyuhoon No of Spin, another dockless company, which has refrained from launching operations on Austin’s public streets (though it does have an arrangement to provide services on the campus of St. Edward’s University), told the committee that staff had made it clear that any companies launching before the city had a pilot program in place would be barred from participation.

“My hope is that the city’s words actually do matter,” he said, adding that Bird and LimeBike would have a lengthy head start if every firm is allowed to seek permits beginning May 1.

“We don’t think that following the rules should result in us being disadvantaged in the marketplace.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo asked Spillar whether the department would consider giving permits to Bird and LimeBike in light of their gatecrashing.

“That’s a discussion I think we’ll need to have with you,” Spillar replied before adding, “I would think that any company that wanted to participate in terms of acquiring permits would need to pay any costs that have been incurred by the city prior to this.”

Tovo also mentioned an email from a constituent who complained of the electric scooters on the trail around Lady Bird Lake. Spillar conceded that park rules ban motorized vehicles from the trail, but that the novelty of the dockless services will induce “a learning curve for everybody.”

The committee took no action on Tuesday on the proposed recommendations. Council is scheduled to vote at its April 26 meeting on revisions to the city code that would establish a permitting process to allow the free-floating vehicles to be stored on public right of way.

Barring any changes to the recommended program, the permitting process would begin on May 1 for a six-month term for qualified companies that pay $30 per vehicle. Each company would be capped at 500 vehicles with a defined core of Central Austin bounded by MoPac Expressway, Oltorf Street, Chicon Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Companies could increase their overall fleet numbers if they draw up plans to ensure those extra vehicles serve areas outside the central city.

This story has been updated to include Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s full name at first reference. 

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