Austin (KXAN) — After several postponements, Austin City Council discussed several ordinances Thursday which would give the city more power to regulate electric scooters, their riders, and the companies operating them.
The city passed one of those: the rider safety ordinance which would give Austin Police authority to ticket scooter riders who are violating the rules. Votes were postponed until August on one ordinance that would move scooter regulation to a franchise model and another that would regulate right-of way-rules.
While electric scooters — which entered the Austin market more than a year ago — are the face of these new dockless forms of transportation, these rules would apply to all shared bicycle services and shared “micro mobilities” — the umbrella term the city uses for any shared, short term, compact transportation devices.
Rider Safety Ordinance
Council approved a rider safety ordinance which was approved Thursday afternoon.
The safe riding ordinance would allow Austin Police to issue citations for people riding scooters in violation of city rules.
Under current rules in Austin, police officers do not have the authority to cite scooter riders who are traveling recklessly. They are only able to issue a citation if an initial warning goes unheeded.
Though an earlier version of the rule suggested increasing the fine to $40 for a first conviction, as it stands now the fines will be kept as they currently stand: $20 for a first conviction and $40 for a subsequent conviction.
The safe riding ordinance would make clear other limitations for these scooters, for example, requiring any riders under the age of 18 to wear a helmet. Many scooter companies say people under the age of 18 should not be riding their devices.
This ordinance as it’s been amended would allow scooter users and bicycles to travel on the sidewalk as long as they ride in a “reasonable and prudent manner” and yield to pedestrians. It would also make it illegal to ride while using a cell phone or to ride scooters on landscaping or street furniture.
And, yes, this ordinance would also ban wrong-way riders and having two people riding on one scooter.
You can view the revised ordinance here, though it has not been updated yet with direction and amendments from the council meeting Thursday.
ATD says that police will begin enforcing these rules as soon as the language of the ordinance is finalized, which typically take a few weeks.
The franchise model proposal
City Council opted to postpone a vote on an ordinance that would move the city from a permit-based system for electric scooters to a franchise system.
This ordinance would amend city code to give the Austin Transportation Department the power to regulate scooter companies the same way it regulates taxis, charter buses, limousines, pedicabs and other franchise model transportation companies. This ordinance does not apply to rideshare companies like Ride Austin or Uber and does not apply to electric personal assistance devices.
ATD noted in council backup documents that the reason for this is to protect against the “oversaturation” of scooters in Austin, to make sure the companies operating the scooters are actually committed to Austin and to better organize city processes around these devices. They also believe this model will offer greater stability and profitability for the companies that are successfully franchised with the city.
Companies will also have to demonstrate their competence in the following areas: equity, affordability, innovation, resilience and sustainability, proactive prevention and community trust and relationships.
Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison filed a joint motion asking to postpone both the right-of-way scooter ordinance and the franchise ordinance until the city manager has time to talk with stakeholders and explore all possible options for regulating scooters. Their fellow council members approved and the city’s transportation department said they had no objections to the postponement.
City staff will come back to council in August with more information on franchising as well as other options. Many council members also asked the transportation department Thursday to look into assigning numbers to each scooter in a fleet, expanding geo-fencing capabilities, and looking into areas of concern such as spotty GPS signal in certain downtown areas.
Currently, there are 14,700 dockless scooters in Austin and 1,021 dockless bikes, according to the city. At a city meeting back in March, leaders with the Austin Transportation Department said they believe the “carrying capacity” for scooters in Austin downtown is around 20,000 devices. There are currently 10 scooter operators permitted in Austin, but only seven actually have devices deployed on the streets.
Right now, there is no official cap placed on the number of scooters or the number of scooter operators that can be in Austin, but the city has paused allowing any new licenses for dockless scooters and bikes
Aura Austin (an urbanist nonprofit) spoke at the council meeting opposing the franchise model.
Dan Keshet, speaking for Aura, suggested that some downtown, on-street parking spaces for cars should be converted to scooter parking, and then have the scooter companies be charged for the lost meter revenue.
“Explore every possibility to continue regulating these without using the franchise system,” Keshet said. “I think you guys are going to be more sick of it than anyone if you try to continue using the franchise system because it’s going to be so much bureaucracy.”
Representatives from scooter companies Spin and Bird spoke to council as well, both expressing worry about how the ordinance was written and asking to postpone the vote until the city has had more discussion about it.
Justin Camarda, general manager for Spin, said to the council, “Today we’re being asked to discuss and decide on a regulatory framework for bikes and scooters that is really unprecedented anywhere else in the country.”
Camarda asked the city for more time to work on creating a framework. He called the current system for permitting scooters in Austin “unfair.” He believes it favors scooter operators in Austin who entered the market earlier.
Blanca Laborde, government relations manager for Bird, told the council, “It’s hard sometimes to remember that scooters have only been in Austin for just about a year and that the entire micro mobility industry has only existed for about 18 months.”
She said Bird is concerned the franchise ordinance the city has proposed lacks detail. She worried it doesn’t state the length of the franchise agreement or how exactly it would allow the city to regulate companies.
The one voice in favor of the franchise model at the meeting was Alex Stregner, a pedicab driver who ran for mayor in Austin in 2018.
“We have a surplus of scooters and it seems like our city is the wild, wild west when it comes to micro mobility,” Stregner said. He believes that franchising will alleviate some of the concerns people have related to scooters.
Input on the ordinances
Many groups in Austin have been following the development of these rules.
Austin’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, for example, recommends that the city quickly fund and build out existing plans to improve sidewalk, disability and bicycle infrastructure as part of these rules. The PAC cited the April release of a study on scooter injuries in Austin by the Centers for Disease Control and Austin Public Health, noting that 55% of interviewed riders were injured in the street and 50% believed that problems with infrastructure — like a pothole or a crack — led to their injuries.
“We don’t want people riding scooters on sidewalks and running into people, and to do that we have to make the street safer,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, Chair of the PAC.
PAC also calls for the city to incentivize parking in the street to avoid blocking the sidewalk.
Notably, PAC recommends requiring all vehicles downtown — even cars — be limited to traveling at 20 miles per hour to reduce the risk of accidents with injuries.
“Once you do that, then it’s much safer to ride your bike or electric bike in the street,” Crossley said.
Kathryn Flowers, Chair of Austin’s Bicycle Advisory Commission, explained that the BAC is also concerned about parking for scooters and how that will impact bikes. BAC sent additional recommendations to City Council Tuesday night.
In their recommendations, the BAC also said it hopes the city amends the rules to encourage parking micro mobility devices in designated spaces, in fact, the commission recommends the city immediately start converting on-street car parking spots into designated bike and scooter parking. Additionally, the BAC wants micro mobility devices to be required to follow the same rules bikes are.
“I was happy to see they had incorporated many of our recommendations from last time,” said Flowers of the updated ordinance drafts. “We think the version going before the council has many good assets to it and we would hope that our recommendations from last night that those will be heard and modified [into the ordinances].”
“We hope to be able to weigh in on the franchise proposal at a later date,” she said.
Both the BAC and the PAC said they are opposed to the language in the rules which says a person can ride micro-mobility devices on sidewalks if they do so in a “reasonable and prudent manner.” Both groups find this wording to be too vague.
At the state level, the Texas Senate has passed a bill which would allow cities more power to regulate scooters and would set a speed limit for scooters at 15 miles per hour. However that bill appears to be stalled in the House Transportation committee, and with only a few days remaining in the legislative session, it appears unlikely that the bill will make it far enough to become law.