A dockless scooter company launches in Austin without city permission


Highlights

A California company this week put several dozen electric scooters on Austin streets.

The city said Friday any scooters left in public right of way longer than 48 hours will be impounded.

But city officials, in a switch, agree to include scooters in talks about a dockless bike-share pilot program.

A California company launched several dozen electric-powered rental scooters on Austin streets Thursday without city permission.

City officials, who met Thursday evening with representatives of Bird Rides Inc., Friday threatened to impound any of the company’s black-and-white scooters — two-wheeled platforms with an upright steering mechanism — that are left in city right of way for 48 hours or longer.

“It is important that all businesses occupying the public right of way do so under the proper permits and procedures so they do not present a public safety hazard,” according to statement from the Austin Transportation Department.

Bird Rides officials said in a statement that their policy is to collect all of the scooters each evening, for recharging and maintenance overnight, and then put them back out in the morning at businesses that have agreed to host the service. It is unlikely that any specific scooter would be in the same place for 48 hours, but the city could choose to tag a scooter at one location and then impound it at another days later.

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“Like the city, we also believe that any vehicle — car, bike or scooter — that is abandoned, obstructs access or creates hazards in the public right of way should be removed,” Bird Rides spokesman Kenneth Baer said in the statement. “To assist, we are now directing Bird riders in Austin to park Birds on the street instead of on sidewalks where bikes and similar vehicles usually park.”

At midday Friday, 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 and just east of Interstate 35 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 city officials disagree with that assessment.

Friday morning, three of the scooters were parked at an alcove at a Schlotzsky’s on South Lamar Boulevard and outside a Wells Fargo bank branch at South Congress and East Riverside Drive, and during the noon hour the Bird scooters were spotted at various locations along South Congress. None were in use, and only a couple were in a position to obstruct pedestrian traffic.

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 a ride, a news release says, the scooters “are parked out of the way of public pathways and at bike racks when available.”

RELATED: The city of Austin is pondering dockless bike operations.

The company, based in Los Angeles and founded last fall, requires that customers getting the app upload a driver’s 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 news 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 the streets in five California cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose and Santa Monica — and in 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 dockless bike-sharing before allowing any of those companies to launch operations here.

The city Transportation Department in its statement Friday said it will now make scooters a part of the ongoing discussion about a pilot project for dockless bicycles, a process expected to conclude late this spring and allow the introduction of that product to Austin streets. A dock-based bike rental operation, owned by the city but run by a nonprofit, has operated for about four years.



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