Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Thursday, June 17, 2021 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

Electric scooter and MetroBike use springs back from pandemic lows

As Austin’s streets took on a relative calm during the pandemic, the dockless electric scooters that drew love and fury when they appeared in 2018 were neglected by users.

But now that people are returning to life as usual, the smartphone-enabled vehicles dubbed “micromobility devices” are making a comeback.

Scooter ridership in Austin last month was up a whopping 3,151 percent from the pandemic low last year. People took more than 343,000 scooter trips in May, compared to some 10,500 trips in April 2020.

“We’re seeing people come out and wanting to get out and get around,” Joseph Al-Hajeri, mobility demand program manager, said.

But usage has yet to return to the heights seen in 2019. The record was in September that year, when Austin had more than 509,000 scooter trips.

Lime, the largest scooter operator in Austin, says leisure users have been quickest to hop back on for a ride. But workers, many of whom still have a five-second commute from their kitchen to their home office, have been slower to return.

“I think we’re going to see a slower transition of the office trips,” said Nico Probst, Lime’s director of government relations. “We expect a lot of those office commutes to start coming back as offices come back online and folks start returning to their employers.”

MetroBike, the government-supervised bicycle rental program formerly known as B-Cycle, is also seeing a resurgence. MetroBike saw record usage in March, April and May, but it’s still dwarfed by the popularity of scooters.

“We’re excited to see where this will go,” Chad Ballentine, a Capital Metro vice president, said at a recent Austin Mobility Committee meeting. Capital Metro and the city oversee MetroBike’s operations by the nonprofit Bike Share of Austin.

From now on, every new MetroBike will include a battery-powered electric motor to help with propulsion. E-bikes are three to four times as popular as MetroBike’s conventional bicycles, Ballentine said.

An increase in micromobility devices also means a rise in complaints. Calls to 311 about scooters and e-bikes were 13 times higher in May than a year earlier.

“People leave them everywhere,” Kenneth Gholson with Wheels Labs said as he was picking up e-bikes knocked over on the sidewalk outside the Austin Convention Center. “The city is asking me to come clean this up because it’s in the walkway, and it’s a hazard.”

“It’s kind of crazy,” he said. “You look up and down the street and you got all kinds of e-bikes and scooters everywhere. That’s my job, to come clean it up.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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