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City no longer the ‘wild, wild west’ of scooters

Friday, May 24, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Imprudent scooter users could now face fines of up to $40 for breaking the city’s new rules of conduct for micro-mobility devices (scooters, skateboards, etc.).

Though they decided to postpone two of the Austin Transportation Department’s three proposed micro-mobility ordinances, City Council members unanimously approved the rider safety ordinance Thursday afternoon, adding only minor caveats.

Two other ordinances, one related to a potential franchise model for dockless mobility operators, and another regarding scooter storage on sidewalks and in the right of way, have been postponed until Aug. 8.

The rider ordinance incorporates scooters and other devices into the city’s rules of the road for bicycles, making users liable for actions such as failing to yield to pedestrians on sidewalks, riding with other people on a single device or riding while using electronic devices.

The complete draft amendment to the city code is available on the city website.

Council members still had plenty of concerns about the micro-mobility ordinances during Tuesday’s work session. Objections generally fell into two camps: Council members Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool each insisted on the importance of having tools to hold scooter users and operators accountable for infractions, while Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Natasha Harper-Madison and Greg Casar led the defense of dockless mobility against potentially excessive regulations.

Both at the Tuesday work session and at Thursday’s meeting, Alter was particularly concerned about the need for scooter rules in city parks. While she was clearly uneasy about having scooters on trails in the first place, Alter was able to get language added to clarify rider rules could be enforced on parkland trails as well as on city streets.

Dockless devices are generally prohibited from city trails except for those currently part of the dockless mobility trails pilot program.

Speaking after the rider ordinance was approved, Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, said the ordinance is good overall, but that the enforcement officers should be carefully chosen and given training to counteract any judgment bias.

With some Council members trying to address dockless safety concerns with clear rules and strict enforcement, Casar and others have echoed the perspective expressed by the Bicycle Advisory Council and community activists alike, that a core piece of the dockless safety issue is the city’s lack of multimodal transportation facilities.

While generally supporting the ordinances, BAC passed a recommendation Tuesday evening that the city take this opportunity to immediately fund and build out the entire 370 miles of on- and off-street bicycle facilities mapped in the roughly $170 million Bicycle Master Plan.

Jason Redfern, parking enterprise manager with ATD, has maintained that one of the proposed ordinances could raise funds to help the city reach that goal. By amending city code to bring dockless mobility under a franchise system, Redfern says the city could leverage enough funds from dockless operators to build such facilities.

Speaking on the topic Thursday, AURA Board Member Josiah Stevenson said although the urban advocacy group is “heartened that both ATD and members of Council have shown real interest in securing additional funds to construct these facilities,” the franchise model isn’t set up for that challenge. Rather, he said, “it’s a system meant to slow change, discourage competition, and decrease availability throughout the city.”

Dan Keshet, also speaking for AURA, proposed a different approach he said would bring in revenue for infrastructure while clearing parked scooters from sidewalks.

“Designate certain on-street parking spaces in places like downtown as spaces for micro-mobility – say, one per block-face – paint it purple and charge the lost meter revenue to the scooter companies,” Keshet suggested.

Flannigan made it clear Tuesday that he wouldn’t support the franchise model ordinance as it is. As the industry is only about 18 months old and the city could benefit from mobility and safety improvements, Flannigan said, a franchise model that could have the effect of limiting that maturation – especially regarding the safety of devices – would be unwise.

The franchise model would also require new companies to submit an application containing “evidence demonstrating the public necessity and convenience” of the service being offered. That application would then go to Council for approval, which Flannigan said could have the effect of incentivizing current dockless operators to get involved politically via campaign donations and other means in order to secure their objectives.

While Flannigan and others see the model as a potential barrier to new companies, Redfern argues the status boost for newer operators who will be part of the franchise will give them an advantage when seeking to expand with loans and investments.

Blanca Laborde, senior manager of government relations at Bird, said the city could better accomplish its goals through a more “nimble framework,” one that is not tied up in the bureaucratic franchise system.

With the unanimous approval of Flannigan’s motion, also signed by Council members Harper-Madison and Paige Ellis, the city manager will be working with staff and stakeholders to explore such alternative frameworks in the weeks leading up to the Aug. 8 meeting.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the costs for the Bike Master Plan are now estimated at roughly $170 million, instead of $151 million. 

Photo by Luis Tamayo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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