AUSTIN (KXAN) — This year will be the first time the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festivals happen in Austin since electric bikes and scooters were introduced to the market in Austin.
At a press conference Wednesday, the city laid out its plans for the entire spring festival season, which includes SXSW festival and a number of other events in Austin’s urban core. City leaders from different departments encouraged festival-goers to take modes of transportation besides cars to curb the expected levels of traffic.
One of the most anticipated topics they discussed was how the city would deal with electric bikes and scooters.
SXSW brings between 200,000 and 400,000 people to Austin each year, city leaders say, and this year those attendees will have the option of navigating an ever-crowded downtown by hopping on a dockless bike or scooter.
There are limits to where people can ride these devices. Previous SXSW festivals have featured barricaded pedestrian-only zones where bikers are asked to dismount and walk their bikes in. This year, those zones will have an added requirement: no electric scooters.
The pedestrian-only zones will be located along Sixth Street, Red River Street and Rainey Street primarily.
“It’s been deemed by everyone involved not to allow the dockless scooters into the enclosure, based on the numbers of pedestrians, the risk is high for the chance of accidents,” said Assistant Chief Newsom with the Austin Police Department.
Austin Police officers on patrol at the festival have been advised to look out for people violating the scooter rules. An APD officer and a marked APD car will be at each barrier with a road closure. But primarily, those officers will be reminding scooter riders of what’s allowed.
“It would be extremely rare for a person to get a citation for coming into the enclosure, especially if they comply with the request to dismount and stop the scooter,” Newsom explained. “If they refuse that, then for sure we’ll take enforcement action.”
“The e-scooters, they’re a great way to get around town, but as we all know they pose challenges at times with where they’re left and how they’re utilized,” said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley at the press conference Wednesday. “It is important for everyone to recognize that you have to follow the same traffic laws the vehicles do if you are operating those scooters.”
Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar said he’s not concerned about adding scooters to the mix at SXSW.
“No, I’m not really worried about it.”
In fact, Spillar was very optimistic about how these new forms of electric transportation have been used in Austin.
“When I talk to my peers in other cities they are just mesmerized with our very positive experience with this new, shared mobility technologies here in Austin,” Spillar said. “We’ve done way over a million rides here in Austin since we introduced them, and that’s just huge, that is people not in cars traveling.”
He is hoping that attendees do use the city’s designated scooter parking boxes and that they don’t vandalize electric vehicles.
“We’re encouraging people to be responsible and park their devices in an orderly way,” Spillar said.
While the city’s messages regarding dockless vehicle safety have reached many Austinites, Spillar recognized that many of the visitors from out of town may have no idea about these rules.
“We are working on that,” he explained, noting that in the long-term, Austin is hoping to change local rules to make it more intuitive for tourists to catch on.
Spillar said that dockless companies will be helping to issue alerts to riders during the festival.
The Austin Transportation Department plans to pass out information about dockless rules at the Austin Convention Center and at hotels downtown.
KXAN asked how many people the city expects to see riding scooters during the festival.
“No idea,” Spillar said with a laugh.