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Higher fines for bikes and scooters raise questions of equity at UTC

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Now that the Austin Transportation Department has decided to take extra time to consider feedback on three of its dockless mobility policy proposals, City Council will only be considering the department’s proposed changes to Chapter 12-2 of the city code, regarding appropriate use of bicycles, at its March 28 meeting.

In a presentation to the Urban Transportation Commission on Monday evening, Jason Redfern, parking enterprise manager at ATD, said the amendment would essentially add “shared mobility devices to the landscape of what’s regulated.”

Under the current code, a bicyclist may be fined $20 for a first offense and $40 for a subsequent offense. The ATD amendment would double both of these figures so that a first-time offender on either a bike or scooter may be fined up to $40 and a repeat offender up to $80.

Commissioner Samuel Franco said the proposed fines are excessive and run counter to the city’s broader goal of incentivizing use of alternative modes of transportation. Franco said the fines also contradict the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan’s goal to use transportation solutions to promote equity in lower-income and historically underserved parts of the community.

In including dockless units in section 12-2, ATD proposes using the new umbrella term “micromobility devices,” which includes all electric or non-electric compact mobility devices such as bicycles, scooters and skateboards. Under the updated code, scooters and bikes would be regulated equally.

Redfern said the change would require dockless mobility users to follow both state bicycle laws and the city’s restrictions on micromobility devices on certain sidewalks and in dismount or special use zones, which in the future will be clearly marked to prevent confusion.

If the change is adopted, it would give both ATD and the Austin Police Department the authority to enforce those restrictions and proper use of dockless units by issuing fines.

According to Redfern, however, the decision to double the fine amounts was based solely on the need to incentivize responsible use of micromobility devices. “We think by elevating those fine amounts that we will gain more compliance more quickly that way,” he said.

With the ASMP citing overgrown foliage as a significant factor contributing to the functionally deficient state of the vast majority of city sidewalks, Commissioner Kelly Davis said a better alternative to fining people “would be making them do community service like removing vegetative obstructions from the sidewalk, something that ties into increasing accessibility and mobility in Austin.”

Regardless of the merit of the idea, Redfern said city code likely cannot dictate that judges prescribe specific punishments such as vegetation removal. “What we can prescribe is the fine amount,” he said.

Commissioner JD Gins said the fines would be a “petty tax” to a large number of users while being prohibitively costly for those who rely on alternative modes of transportation due to the high costs of vehicle ownership. This is particularly true for teenagers under 18, he said, who would be required to wear a helmet while operating micromobility units or face a relatively hefty fine.

“We could make helmets available for families that can’t afford them,” Gins said. “If this is really a transit opportunity for a kid who might otherwise be walking to a bus station, if they can’t afford a helmet and they are getting fined for that, then it takes what could be a tool for them out of reach for them.”

Jason JonMichael, assistant director of Smart Mobility, said that fines would only be issued to roughly 20 percent of users who were not persuaded to change their behavior through the initial education and outreach efforts that would follow adoption of the amendment. After those initial steps, he said, some users will require an additional helping hand. “Sometimes that extra helping hand is getting in trouble.”

Photo by Adam Coppola [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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