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Bird Dockless scooters

E-bikes, e-scooters not welcome in Austin parks

Monday, July 9, 2018 by Ryan Young

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department would like to remind parkgoers to observe the speed limit.

In a June memo to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council, department Director Kimberly McNeeley pointed out that city code prohibits the use of motorized vehicles, including e-bikes, e-scooters and Segways, within public recreation areas. That includes parks, trails, greenbelts and other public spaces. McNeeley wrote that the parks department is planning a two-week public outreach effort that will include friendly reminders from park rangers and new warning signs.

In recent months, urban transportation startups such as Bird, Pace, Goat and Lime (and now JUMP) seeded Austin streets with hundreds of dockless bikes and scooters, and some of their patrons used those vehicles on Austin’s hike and bike trails. With their electric motors, e-bikes and e-scooters can reach speeds much higher than pedestrians can walk or jog.

That left some of the slower trailblazers feeling unsafe, and they voiced their complaints to the parks department. “Last week, we had an increase in inquiries from the public asking if these scooters were allowed on parkland and allowed on bike trails,” said Ricardo Soliz, acting assistant director of the department.

According to Section 8-1-31 of the city code’s Parks Administration chapter, the answer is no. There are a few exceptions: Individuals with disabilities may use Segways and motorized wheelchairs in parks, and e-bikes are allowed on the Emma Long Metropolitan Park motorcycle trails.

Taking an e-bike or e-scooter onto parkland would be an easy mistake to make – the electric motor makes all the difference. “I think people probably don’t know,” Soliz said. “It’s just something new that we’re seeing a lot of, and it seems recreation-related.”

Soliz noted that e-bikes and e-scooters pose potential safety hazards when driven on hike and bike trails. “The scooters and e-bikes can go anywhere from 15 to 25 miles per hour – just the speed and the volume of people, particularly on the hike and bike trail and certain portions of the trail, could be dangerous,” he said, citing the danger to slow-moving pedestrians and people with strollers, especially at pinch points where the trail narrows.

Department spokesperson Shelley Parks said the prohibition on motorized vehicles has been in effect since 1992, and that it hadn’t been much of an issue until recently, when e-bikes and e-scooters exploded in popularity. Parks added that the vehicles are also “not good for the park grounds,” meaning the greenbelts and green spaces the department is in charge of in addition to the hike and bike trails.

The department will place warning signs on the Ann and Roy Butler trail to remind visitors not to use motorized vehicles. These will be temporary – Soliz likened them to yard signs for real estate listings – until the department can install permanent signage. Soliz hinted at a new symbol just for e-bikes and e-scooters. “We certainly don’t want to have more signs up just for sign clutter,” he said, “but maybe a symbol of some sort that … communicates electric or battery-operated or something like that. Maybe a circular kind of symbol that we can add to our existing signs.”

According to the department, park rangers will issue warnings, but only park police and the Austin Police Department can issue citations.

So far, the crackdown doesn’t seem to be affecting e-bike or e-scooter companies, according to Marissa Monroy, spokesperson for the Austin Transportation Department. They haven’t reduced their numbers of permitted scooters or bikes. “No companies have been like, ‘Oh, I’m going to return half the scooters because we don’t really need them anymore since they’re not allowed in parks,’” she said.

As for changing the code? Soliz is open to that. “I think we’re going to have some kind of bigger discussion about that,” he said. He added that e-bikes and e-scooters could be permitted “on the trails that are much wider, where we can see more of a separation of bikes versus pedestrians, where there’s a little more thought in that separation.”

Photo by Caleb Pritchard.

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