AUSTIN (KXAN) — Starting in mid-December, certain Austin parks will allow electric bikes and scooters to zip down their trails. It's part of a pilot program put on by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department which aims to gather more data about these new vehicles, which have quickly become a popular way to get around town.
Current city Parks and Recreation Code bans motorized vehicles and devices from being driven on public recreational areas (other than a public roadway or in the parking lot of a public recreation area).
But several city advisory councils recommended this pilot program and Parks and Recreation decided to try it.
The trails which will allow electric vehicles are:
- Johnson Creek
- Shoal Creek
- Northern Walnut Creek Trail
- Southern Walnut Creek Trail
- Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike trail (only electric bikes allowed, not electric scooters)
A city memo on the matter said that the Parks Department has received public opposition to having electric scooters on the Ann & Roy Butler trail, they also say the surface of the trail is not suited for safe operation of scooters.
"It's not every trail, it is not our nature trails, it is not our greenbelts, it really is more of the hard-surface mobility focused trails," explained Amanda Ross, division manager for natural resources for the Parks and Recreation Department.
The city believes electric vehicles, if used properly, could play a role in easing congestion in Austin. However, they recognize the electric vehicles also pose safety concerns.
Part of this program will also be monitoring speed limits at these parks with the help of technology from the Austin Transportation Department. The speed limit on Austin trails is 10 miles per hour. Some of the electric scooters in Austin including Lime scooters can run up to 20 miles per hour.
KXAN crews saw people riding electric scooters and bikes all along the Ann and Roy Butler trail throughout the day Wednesday.
"They're there, it's a problem for us at this point," Ross said. "So we're trying to understand what our next steps are, to address them in a safe way or direct them to the right trails."
Enforcement of these rules can be challenging. The Parks Department can talk to people about the rules, but they have to call in Austin Police if they want to issue a citation.
The program will start in December of 2018 and will run nine months through the fall of 2019. The results will be used to help craft better city rules that work for both the people on these electric vehicles and the people who are not riding them.
Also as part of the pilot, the Parks Department plans to track where crashes are happening, to add more signs, and to educate electric vehicle riders about trail etiquette. Depending on what they find, the city may even consider installing divided trails at parks, with one lane for electric vehicles and one lane for other traffic.
Jim Freeman, an attorney who specializes in personal injury law, knows these electric vehicles come with risks. His clients have sustained serious injuries while riding them, including a broken leg which required a $100,000 surgery and a fractured eye socket.
Freeman doubts whether scooters on these trails will comply with the posted 10 miles per hour speed limit.
"You're gonna exceed that on the scooters, for sure," he said.
Freeman said that some of his clients have been hurt because of problems with brake systems on some of the electric scooters.
"I don't see any reason to prevent [electric vehicles] from operating here, we just need to make sure they are held accountable when their products fail and it causes somebody to get hurt," he said.
For those looking to use electric vehicles on the trails, he recommends spending time practicing with the vehicle in a safe environment before you're in a time crunch.
"That's what I've seen a lot of, they get on the machine they have no incentive to really learn how to ride it, they zip down the road and all of a sudden they're in a challenging braking situation or whatever, and BAM!" he said
The city will soon launch a webpage for the program and a site through which the public can give feedback. People who see illegal or questionable use of scooters can also call in their concerns to 3-1-1. The Parks Department will begin tracking the 3-1-1 calls regarding electric bike and scooter complaints on their trails during this pilot program.
Ross explained the parks are supposed to be safe places for the public to hang out in.
"If that changes at all with this pilot, it's important for us to hear from people," she said.