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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Austin's scooters could come under same rules as taxis

By Kelsey Bradshaw

By Philip Jankowski

Posted May 21, 2019 at 3:40 PM

Updated May 21, 2019 at 6:26 PM

The Austin City Council on Thursday could create an unprecedented level of regulation governing electric rental scooters, putting the budding and controversial industry under the same rules applied to taxis.

Austin would be the first city in the U.S. to employ such a model, giving it broad authority over dockless scooter companies, such as Bird and Lime, that would provide avenues for kicking them out of the city.

But even as city transportation staffers floated the idea Tuesday, when council members discussed an array of possible ordinances designed to update the city’s regulation of scooters, cracks started to show in the support for a franchise model that some industry insiders oppose.

“My instinct is not to support a franchise model,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “I think there are other ways to do this that won’t cause barriers to innovation.”

A franchise model would give the council direct authority over which vendors can operate in the city.

“We believe it could potentially negatively affect our ability to innovate,” said Tim Alborg, director of government partnerships at Spin, which operates 500 scooters in Austin.

Currently, there’s no cap on the number of dockless operators in the city, of which there are 10. The city does have limits on the number of scooters each company can deploy. More than 14,600 scooters are in operation in Austin, according to the city.

New rules about permit fees also are part of the ordinance, which proposes an annual fee for each scooter to be paid quarterly by the proper company. That fee would not be set until the city adopts next year’s budget.

Scooter companies operating in Austin currently pay $30 per device every six months. They also have to pay $30 a device when they increase the size of their fleets.

The proposed ordinance also requires dockless rental scooter and bike companies to provide identifying information about users involved in certain crashes.

Austin police officers would be able to ticket those who violate rider rules. First-time violations would carry a fine of $20, and subsequent violations would cost $40. The first draft of the rider ordinance had set fines at $40 for the first offense and $80 for the second, but Transportation Department officials decided to the lower them out of a concern about equity, said Jason Redfern, a parking enterprise manager for the department.

“When you are talking about violations that endanger lives, including their own, they need to be treated as such,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “I don’t think we set the right pricing signal if that is a $20 fine.”

Rules outlined in the ordinance include requiring riders under the age of 18 to wear a helmet, and it would ban two people traveling on a single scooter. Scooter riders would have to follow parking requirements, which include not leaving a scooter in a right of way, on private property, in front of an accessibility ramp or bench, obstructing a bus stop or on a railroad track.

A bill that would create statewide regulations for rental scooters — including setting a speed limit of 15 mph and requiring that riders have a valid driver’s license — has passed the Texas Senate, but given the time constraints facing legislators, its passage in the House appeared unlikely Tuesday.

None of the three Austin ordinances up for consideration addresses scooters on parkland and trails in Austin, an issue brought up when Council Member Alison Alter asked what happens when a rider commits an infraction on a trail. Scooter riders are using the Butler Hike and Bike Trail despite it not being included in a Parks and Recreation Department pilot program that allows the devices on some trails through the fall.

“The parkland and trail system, and the Butler Trail in particular, is still not being addressed, and it is a free-for-all out there,” said Heidi Anderson, executive director of the Trail Foundation.

Anderson said the Trail Foundation has started selling T-shirts that read “No electric scooters” to raise awareness about the trail rule, and it has spent $5,000 on banners with the same message. “I just don’t want our parks and trail to be forgotten in this conversation,” she said, referring to the possible ordinances.

Love them or hate them, scooters are a growing part of Austin’s transportation infrastructure. In less than a year, the monthly total of trips has jumped exponentially.

South by Southwest brought a significant spike in rides, with 740,476 in March. Totals for previous months had been in the 300,000 range. Ridership remained higher in April, with 513,060 trips. So far, 333,946 trips have been taken in an unusually rainy May, according to city of Austin data.

“With the number of rides we are gathering each month, (dockless) is becoming a necessity,” said Jason JonMichael, Austin Transportation Department assistant director

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