Austin threatens impoundment as rental scooters launch on city streets

UPDATE, 1:35 p.m. The electric scooters put on Austin streets Thursday by Bird Rides Inc. will be impounded, Austin Transportation Department officials said in a statement Friday afternoon, if left within city right of way for 48 hours or more.

The Austin City Code, the statement said, “protects the public from unsafe obstructions and other illegal activity within the public realm.”

Impoundments may not be necessary. The company, in an earlier statement shared with the media, had said it will collect all of its several dozen scooters each night and then re-launch them again in the morning at “nests,” businesses that have agreed to host the scooters.

The city also confirmed that it will include scooters in the ongoing discussion about a pilot program for dockless bike-sharing. City officials as recently as earlier this week had said only bikes would be part of that pilot.

“It is important that all businesses occupying the public right of way do so under the proper permits and procedure so they do not present a public safety hazard.”

Bird did not seek and does not have any sort of permit from the city to operate its scooters.

EARLIER: A California company launched several dozen electric-powered rental scooters onto Central Austin streets Thursday, without the city of Austin’s permission.

City officials, who met Thursday evening with representatives of Bird Rides Inc., Friday were still deciding what to do about the black-and-white scooters. As of late Friday morning, the icons on the company’s app designating the location of the scooters, were clustered in the South Congress Avenue entertainment district, with a few scattered north of the river as well.

A company representative Thursday told the Austin Monitor that it considers its vehicles, which go a maximum of 15 mph, to be in compliance with all city and state laws. But it appears that city officials disagree with that assessment.

The company, according to a news release, puts the scooters out each day at private businesses that have agreed to host them — the American-Statesman found three of them early Friday at an alcove at Schlotzsky’s on South Lamar Boulevard and outside a Wells Fargo bank branch at South Congress and Riverside Drive — then collects them by 8 p.m. for recharging and storage overnight. But in the hours in between, those who rent the scooters by the minute can leave them elsewhere. City officials are concerned that renters could ride them in the middle of a publicly owned sidewalk.

Bird Rides’ policy, which the company says it communicates to potential customers through its app, is that the scooters are to be ridden in the street and in bike lanes, not on sidewalks. At the end of the ride, the press release says, “Birds are parked out of the way of public pathways and at bike racks when available.”

The company, based in Los Angeles and founded last fall, requires that customers getting the app upload a drivers license, consent to a safety agreement and aver that they are at least 18 years old. The company said it believes in “responsible growth,” pledging in the press release that it will not increase its supply of vehicles in a city unless each scooter is being used, on average, three times a day or more.

Bird Rides says it has scooters on streets in five California cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and Santa Monica — and Washington, D.C.

The sudden launch of Bird scooters came just a day after the city of Austin hosted 10 bike-share companies at a public forum at the new central public library. The city is trying to craft regulations for so-called dockless bike-sharing before allowing any of those companies to launch operations here.

A city spokeswoman said Friday that the city, which had not made scooters a part of that discussion Wednesday or in the rule-making, now intends to include scooters in the process.

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