Council beefs up law on scooters, dockless bikes

Updated April 27, 2018

The Austin City Council early Friday morning gave its regulators a hammer to brandish on electric rental scooters and dockless bikes. What remains to be seen is when the city will use it.

The council, on a unanimous vote, approved an ordinance tweaking several sections of existing city law to make it clear that leaving scooters or bikes on city right of way for rental is illegal in Austin, absent that person or company applying for and receiving a city license to do so. The new ordinance also clarifies that the city may impound such vehicles found in violation of city rules, redeemable by the owners at the cost of $200 for each scooter or bike.

Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, said after the meeting that his office, after sending warning letters to the two companies now operating scooters on the streets — Bird Rides and LimeBike — would begin impounding scooters for the companies operating without a license.

The ordinance says that no person — including customers, not merely representatives of the scooter or bike companies — may “place, store, or park, or allow another person to place, store, or park, a vehicle, machinery, or other item on a street, alley or sidewalk” for the purpose of selling, renting or leasing the item.

That provision provides exceptions for newspaper sales, public markets in some cases, flower sales and a variety of other businesses that were permitted under existing city law.

City transportation officials have already been working on the new licensing process, which will take effect May 1, and those interested should be able to get a license relatively quickly after applying, officials said. But that would leave up to two weeks or more when the current rental operations by Bird Rides and LimeBike, assuming the companies decline to temporarily remove their fleets of stand-up scooters from the market, would be in violation of city law if they continue.

“I’d like to see you move as quickly as you can to put rules in place,” Mayor Steve Adler said to Spillar.

Neither company has given any indication that it plans to hit the pause button on rentals of the scooters, which have proven to be a modest hit in Central Austin since Bird put its scooters out April 5 and LimeBike followed April 16. Each company is using a corp of newly hired “chargers,” part-timers who agree to scoop up scooters each evening and charge them at their homes. Taking them off the market temporarily likely would mean that those spur-of-the-moment contractors would have to store the idle scooters at their homes.

Austin could see a diverse and colorful palette of devices hitting the streets in the next month. Aside from the two companies already active with scooters — and Spin, which has kept its scooters on the sidelines so far — LimeBike and companies such as Ofo and MoBike offer primarily rental bikes. Jump offers bikes with electric motors that can be switched on, or left off while the cyclist provides all the power. And there is at least one local scooter company, GOAT.

It’s owner Michael Schramm talked to the council in the late night hours, arguing that his company had followed the city’s process to its own disadvantage.

“Please consider the damage done to local companies that have patiently waited to enter the market at the right time and in the right way,” Schramm said.

RELATED: Austin deals with the scooter invasion.

The prohibition against placing the devices in city right of way seemingly puts renters in a box, given that the allure of the scooters and dockless bikes is greatly enhanced by the ability to find them handy and then leave them outside the renter’s destination. City officials have talked about potentially designating a variety of places where it would be legal to leave the vehicles, but the details on that are a work in progress.

The city said what is about to happen with the rentals — officials quibbled about whether to call it a pilot — will be set in stone at most for only half a year. The expectation, both for city staff and the Council, is that potentially the new ordinance and certainly the underlying rules will be tweaked in a half year based experience.

Council Member Kathie Tovo Thursday proposed an amendment that, among other elements, would allow companies — meaning Bird and LimeBike — to “restore good standing” by reimbursing the city for costs associated with their early launch, removing existing scooters from the streets and not putting them back out until the city grants them a license. The idea is that other scooter companies, which took a competitive blow by declining to launch without city permission, would get what amounts to a restart in the Austin market.

The city Transportation Department, using rules crafted under the authority of the ordinance, plans to charge companies $30 for each scooter or bike they put out on the street, a fee covering only half a year. Beyond that, the companies would be allowed to put on the streets up to 500 bikes or scooters, or 500 of each for companies that offer both products, with additional allowances for scooters or bikes put out for rental in what the city considers underserved areas.