Austin looks to add regulations for electric scooters, bikes

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At a Thursday meeting of Austin’s Mobility Committee, city leaders heard from the Austin Transportation Department about their vision for changing existing rules to help regulate electric bikes and scooters. 

About a year ago electric bikes and scooters entered the Austin market, and after looking at their pilot program, ATD says it’s ready to adjust city rules with the information they’ve learned.  Since April of 2018, ATD said that Austin has had over 2.5 million electric bike and scooter trips. 

There are four new regulations the city is looking at, they are expected to be presented to council on March 15 and then the council is scheduled to take them up on March 28 

One of those changes, for example, would be providing “a regulatory framework” for these vehicles. 

While the city already has specific ordinances limiting where people can and can’t ride bicycles, these new regulations would come up with similar limitations for scooters and give agencies like the Austin Police Department more enforcement power. 

Right now, Austin Police can warn someone who is riding the scooter in an unsafe way, and only if that person does not heed the police reminder can they issue a citation. The city’s new rules would allow officers to issue a citation to anyone who is not riding a scooter in a “reasonable and prudent way,” for example a scooter rider barreling down a pedestrian-filled sidewalk at high speeds. 

Another change would be altering the fee structure for electric bike and scooter companies, making it more competitive. 

Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar explained the idea behind this change is to weed out companies who are not invested in Austin long-term. 

“So that we’re not dealing with a larger and larger number of devices and a larger and larger number of companies,” he said, adding. 

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the council that we want to make sure this pays for itself and it pays for the infrastructure it uses,” he said. 

The city is also looking into having better signage and more intuitive markings for where these vehicles are allowed. 

“Many of our city’s visitors, they don’t know which [roads] they can or can’t ride on, so we want to move on a more logic-based dismount zone, so we  would notify users that this sidewalk is off limits whether it is a bicycle, or a skateboard or a scooter,” Spillar said. 

“Making sure that people know when they are on a scooter and if they are using the street that they are bound by the rules of the road of the state of Texas,” he added.

Another change: the city will change how it refers to these devices, instead of calling them “dockless vehicles” the city is moving to call them “micro mobilities.” 

The discussion 

Representatives from both Bird and Lime were present at the mobility meeting. 

Joe Deshotel, manager of government relations for Lime noted Lime does a variety of things to keep scooter riders safer, including providing information for Lime representatives in their apps, encouraging riders to travel on the street, even working with  “brand ambassadors” who hand out helmets.  

“We’ve given out 600 plus helmets in the city of Austin, we will continue to give out helmets through South by [Southwest],” Deshotel said. 

KXAN pointed out that not many Austin electric scooter riders wear helmets. 

“Really getting people to use helmets is a lot different than handing them out,” Deshotel responded. 

During the discussion Thursday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler pointed out the divide in the community over these new vehicles.

“Everybody here is in one of two groups, half of the people I’ve run into have had near-death experiences with scooters, the other half can’t imagine life without a scooter,” he said. 

He asked what kind of geofencing technologies these scooters have. 

“The geofencing capabilities are not as accurate as we’d like them to be,” Deshotel responded, noting that outside of the downtown area, it would be impossible to know of a scooter was on a sidewalk versus in the street a few feet away. 

At the meeting, council members also asked questions about the times these vehicles can be used. 

The Lime representative explained that their scooters are on 24-hours a day. The Bird representative said their scooters have more limited hours, you cannot start a ride after midnight. 

While some on the council were worried about the safety of having electric scooters accessible late at night, ATD staff explained that some service workers downtown say there is a safety advantage to going home from work on scooters rather than walking with tips in their pockets.  

“I just want to underscore how important it is to really get a stronger enforcement piece,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, saying that’s the scooter-related issue most commonly brought up by her constituents. 

ATD leaders had said that their survey results of around 1,000 people showed that the public is “neutral” about having scooters on the trails. Kathie Tovo pressed the department further on their statistics,  ATD said they’d have to get back to her on whether the results were neutral generally or whether positive and negative results balanced each other out. 

Council Member Alison Alter worried that people who are injured on scooters and go to urgent care or a family doctor won’t be counted in the numbers the city is taking in. 

 A representative from Austin Public Health responded that the city doesn’t have resources to track all injuries, particularly minor injuries where someone went to urgent care. 

“There’s a lot of ambiguity in the legal framework,” Alter said, adding that she hopes the new regulations will help hold companies and riders more accountable. 

“My concern is whether the dockless scooters are creating a public health problem,” Alter said, adding that she wants to know what the city’s data shows. While the city’s numbers show that the total number of scooter injuries are relatively low compared to other types of transportation, Alter pointed out she’d like to see statistics in context in the future as there are far more cars than scooters on Austin’s roads. 

ATD and Austin Public Health officials told, her, they hope CDC study will give her some more clarity on how safe the scooters are. 

Committee members also got an update on the Centers for Disease Control study that’s been going on — the first study of its kind in the country on the epidemiological impacts of electric scooters. The CDC is in the process of interviewing people who sustained scooter-related injuries during the fall of 2018. 

ATD said that the CDC hopes to finish this study in around a month. 

In the presentation for Thursday’s meeting, statistics are listed about the total number of injuries related to these electric bikes and scooters. From December 1, 2018, through January 31, 2019, there were no fatalities related to scooters in Austin and there were 71 injuries. The majority of those injuries were non-life threatening, though a couple of them were Priority 1 or life-threatening injuries. 

The period in which this data was taken ended days before Austin’s first scooter-related death. Mark Sands, a 21-year-old University of Texas exchange student, was hit by an Uber driver while riding a Lime scooter the wrong way on the I-35 frontage road near Fifth Street, police said. 

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