Scooters at SXSW: high ridership, rule-breakers, and lessons learned


AUSTIN (Texas) — The day after the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals ended in Austin, city leaders were busy talking about what went right and what didn’t during the first SXSW with electric bikes and scooters present.

For a festival that prides itself on cultivating new ideas, this year’s SXSW saw these new devices all over — bringing large numbers of people around the city to attend festival events. 

The Austin Transportation Department says they received 400 city service requests/311 calls related to dockless scooters during the festival, though they can’t parse out how many of those might have been internal city communication. 

Since October, Austin riders have traveled around 300,000 miles each month on dockless vehicles. But SXSW appears to have caused a surge in ridership, in March there have already been more than 526,767 miles traveled on dockless vehicles — and the month isn’t over yet. 

But these new devices present safety concerns as well. These concerns came up Monday as the city’s Urban Transportation Committee received an update on dockless vehicles from ATD. 

“In terms of safety, it’s stunning that no one died at South By,” said one committee member during the discussion about dockless vehicles.

KXAN’s cameras captured several of these vehicles riding dangerously or in ways that break city rules during the festival. Many people rode down 6th Street during SXSW traveling the wrong way down the street, barreling down crowded sidewalks or riding two people to a scooter. 

Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents District 9, said she got so frustrated with scooters blocking the sidewalk that she has moved some of the misplaced devices herself to safer locations. 

“I do see a real need to provide education about scooter use, I saw lots of people using them in ways that were not safe,” Tovo said. “Two on a scooter, or driving in car lanes when a bike lane is available or driving the wrong way down a street, so those are all practices we want to discourage.”

The education about scooters needs to involve all the public and private partners, Tovo said. 

“That will have to be not just the city’s responsibility, but the responsibility of the scooter companies as well,” she added. 

Part of the battle in Austin is getting out-of-towners up-to-speed on the evolving dockless rules, Tovo said, noting that she’d received complaints from constituents about scooter riders breaking city rules and riding on the Hike & Bike trail during the festival. 

Tovo also wants to see change city rules to make it easier for Austin Police Officers to cite people who are not riding by the rules. 

Currently, APD officers who see a scooter rider in violation can only give that rider a warning. A proposed city ordinance Council will hear next week hopes to give APD the power to issue a citation immediately to those riding unsafely.

Tovo and everyone else KXAN interviewed for this story seemed to feel that having designated pedestrian-only zones and scooter parking areas helped during SXSW.

Jason Redfern, the parking operations manager from the Austin Transportation Department, said overall he thinks that the use of dockless devices at SXSW went “worked fairly well,” though he noted that ATD still has to ask other city departments what their thoughts are before they can give a full assessment. 

“South by Southwest had an extreme amount of usage,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible the amount of people who were moving with these devices.” 

Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents District 6, believes that South by Southwest amplified the scooter behavior he’s already seen in Austin: many safe riders with some bad actors who don’t heed the rules. 

Flannigan said he is hoping the new ordinances council is considering may help. 

“Just like with any set of rules and ordinances, a lot of this is about enforcement and just teaching people to be better,” he said.  

There are plenty of scooter-related problems that haven’t totally been addressed yet, Flannigan acknowledged, such as young children riding the devices even though the scooters are not designed for children. 

“I once, at a bus stop, watched a parent unlock a scooter and hand it to their kid and watch their kid ride it down the sidewalk and ride it in and out of people who were waiting for the bus,” he said. 

“It’s no different than when I see bad drivers on the road, I’m not going to ban all the cars,  when I see bad cyclists, I don’t ban all the bikes,” Flannigan added. “We have barely begun implementing regulations and enforcement on the scooters and I think there’s a lot more we can do.” 

KXAN showed Joe Deshotel, a Community Affairs manager for Lime, video of scooter riders on 6th Street during SXSW. 

“Yikes,” he said, watching the video that showed one scooter rider heading straight toward traffic. “Yep, that’s not going the right way.”

Then we showed him the video where two young children are riding a single scooter down the street. 

He explains, “so the rider ordinance is going to address all that.”

“It’s going to say children have to wear a helmet– they shouldn’t be on them by our rules — but they have to wear a helmet if they are, and of course they’re going to be enforcing one rider per device, these are things that we support the city enforcing,” Deshotel said. 

In general, he sees the first SXSW with electric scooters in a positive light. For next year he said that it could be beneficial for Austin to add more zones for scooters to ride in.

“More protected bike lanes, even if they were temporary for Southby,” he suggested. 

Deshotel added that more labeling and better signage for where to ride and park scooters could help for future SXSW festivals.

“I think it went really well in terms of understanding the plan initially and then after that,” Deshotel said. “Our ability to go in and extract scooters out of the barricaded zones was actually working really well because we beefed up our staff and we had the appropriate number of people on the ground to be able to handle the increase in the number of scooters.”

Deshotel said that Lime saw the same spike in their scooter ridership during SXSW that the city of Austin did. 

“All 10 days we saw an increase in ridership, we saw a huge spike in downloads of the app,” Deshotel said, explaining that Lime believes SXSW attendees wanted to get around Austin without having a car. 

He is hopeful that the city of Austin will enforce the new ordinances they are working on. 

“I think they will, they say they intend to,” he said. 

New ordinances for scooters in Austin 

Back in February, Austin’s Transportation Department told the city’s Mobility Committee about four new city ordinances designed to regulate these devices (the city is now referring to them as “micro mobilities” rather than as dockless vehicles to make room for whatever kind of vehicles could be built into the future).

Three of those ordinances have been tabled until May, but one will go before Austin City Council for approval at the March 28 meeting. That ordinance would expand Austin’s current regulations for vehicles like bikes to cover electric bikes and scooters as well. This would mean that anyone under the age of 18 would be required to wear a helmet while riding an electric bike or scooter. It would also make it easier for APD to issue citations to scooter riders and increase the penalty fees. 

This policy would also force electric scooters and bikes to comply with the state laws of the road.  

Under this change, there could be certain areas of the city where scooter riders would be required to ride in the street as opposed to the sidewalk. ATD offered up 2nd Street, 3rd Street, and Congress as examples of lower-speed roads where this could work. The streets the city ultimately selects for this will have special use and dismount zones. These areas will need to be marked with special signage so they are clear to visitors, ATD said. 

These rules would not cover any electric vehicles like personal golf carts, ATD explained at the committee meeting. 

In May, Council is slated to hear the next three ordinances related to micro-mobilities, including a change to the franchise model for scooters which is designed to whittle down the number of companies operating in the city. Currently, there are ten licensed electric bike and scooter operators in the city, though ATD says only seven of them are regularly visible in the city. The city has not decided how many micro-mobility companies will be allowed to operate in the future.

The city is working with the Centers for Disease Control to conduct the first-ever epidemiological study on electric scooter crashes using data from collisions in Austin between September 5 and November 30 of 2018. ATD said they do not have the results of that survey yet, but they expect them, mid-spring. 

In Austin, there are currently 17,650 vehicles authorized to run in the city (though not that many are necessarily deployed). ATD says, based on the ridership numbers, they think around 20,000 devices is the “carrying capacity” Austin has for electric bikes and scooters. However, if companies show the city data which proves their scooters are being used many times during a day, the city might be willing to reevaluate their limits on scooters. 

Kathie Tovo and the Austin Transportation Department both mentioned they plan to work toward a scooter summit with dockless companies in the coming months, hosting a public event to explain to people electric bike/scooter rules and best practices.

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