Why you shouldn’t expect those scooters to disappear any time soon

Austin

Austin City Council on Thursday will consider regulations regarding the hundreds of electric scooters that have popped up on city streets in the last few weeks.

Alec Willrodt is a recent adoptee. “I got the hang of it right away,” Willrodt said as he prepared to take his second ride. “I was able to just pick up the scooter and ride it.” He lives and works downtown, and can see using the devices regularly.

“What usually takes me a 15-minute walk ended up being a two-minute scooter ride,” he said.

The rules proposed by the Austin Transportation Department include a $30 fee per scooter, numbered permits per device and data collection by the companies operating them to keep track of things like injuries.

Since dropping off their first couple hundred earlier this month, the company Bird has already increased the number to about 700, the company’s chief legal officer David Estrada told KXAN. Each device is averaging about five or six rides per day, he said, and the demand keeps growing.

Council will also consider limiting the number of scooters per company to 500 initially, meaning Bird would need to reduce its stock. 

Both Bird and LimeBike, the other company with scooters in town, say they’re committed to working with the city on the regulations to ensure the technology can be used safely and effectively.

LimeBike would not tell KXAN how many scooters it has in the city or the number of rides per day it’s seeing, but Anthony Fleo, regional general manager for the company, said they’re seeing “more trips every day.”

The scooters are already polarizing, inspiring love or hate in the few short weeks they’ve been available here, but researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Transportation Research say those types of options are likely only going to get more common in years to come.

“I think we are in a new landscape in transportation,” Chandra Bhat, a UT professor and transportation researcher, said. “These kinds of services are on-demand; they’re reliable.”

Those are two reasons Bhat said people are adopting new technologies like dockless scooters and bikes, and even ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft. They’re also fairly inexpensive and easy to pay for, he said. All those options are part of a shift in how people think about transportation.

Bhat is working on a paper with some of his students about mobility as a service, the new model many of us are adopting, consciously or not, as opposed to an ownership-based model.

Not only can those services provide more options to communities that need them, legacy public transit like buses and rail can benefit from what they consider first- and last-mile options. Capital Metro told KXAN in an email it is looking into the services for that reason.

“There’s also research indicating that people who use new mobility options like these are more likely to try transit,” said Marriette Hummel, a Capital Metro spokeswoman. “When there is a wide range of mobility options available, it becomes easier to either travel without a car or reduce the number of cars per household.”

Hummel, though, also raised possible concerns about the “last foot” of a trip — the places where people decide to leave the scooters when they’re done with them. The city started impounding devices that were blocking sidewalks and violating codes, but both Bird and LimeBike say they haven’t seen significant problems, partly because they pick up all their scooters each night to recharge them.

That’s disconnected from the reality many Austinites feel. The sudden appearance of hundreds of the scooters in the city core, along with riders’ propensity to use them on sidewalks despite rules requiring them to stick to bike lanes, is downright annoying to many in the city.

“Our building has concerns with them being left,” Teddy Couch, who works downtown, said. Still, he’s been an early adopter, riding the scooters to get to lunch spots he wouldn’t have time to walk to. “There’s got to be some middle ground there because it’s a good opportunity for the city.”

“At the end of the day, we have to think about regulations. We have to think about policies,” and not just to keep people safe, Bhat said. “We need to ensure that the services are being reasonably well-distributed across all segments of the population.”

Council will also consider a rule Thursday expanding the number of scooters each company is allowed if they put the additional devices in underserved parts of the city.

The city is hosting two more public forums on the issue this week:

  • Fri., April 27 – 9 a.m.-12 p.m., Cultural Arts Training Room 201, E. 2nd St., Suite A
  • Sat., April 28 – 2:30-4 p.m., Twin Oaks Library, 1800 South 5th St.

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