Broken bones and blocked pathways have become a daily reality in Austin since hundreds of stand-up motorized rental scooters began popping up in April.
The more than 2,000 scooters scattered across Austin can go 15 mph, do not require a helmet and have landed dozens in the Dell Seton Medical Center emergency room. Then, because the scooters are dockless, they often end up stacked on sidewalks, obstructing public walkways.
Doctors at Dell Seton Medical Center have treated one to two injuries every day since the beginning of April, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the hospital’s emergency department medical director. The injuries include broken elbows, knees and wrists as well as scrapes and cuts, but at least four serious head injuries and two injuries from a collision with a vehicle have been reported, he said.
Serious head injuries, which can occur when a rider isn’t wearing a helmet, require weeks of rehabilitation, Ziebell said.
Dell Seton Medical Center was setting up a system to track scooter injuries, he said, adding that a neurosurgeon there brought the influx of injuries to his attention.
“A neurosurgeon — he’s been operating on multiple people’s brains. He’s the one who kind of rang the alarm bell,” Ziebell said. “(Falling from) the height from the top of your head to the ground is enough to cause serious brain damage.”
Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services officials have responded to at least 13 incidents involving the scooters between April 1 and Aug. 6, data obtained by the American-Statesman show.
Ziebell suggested users wear helmets, elbow pads, knee pads and other protective gear when riding in designated bike lanes and streets where the speed limit is lower than 35 mph.
Scooters pose a hazard even when they’re not in use.
Since May 29, when the city’s 311 line started tracking scooter calls, dispatchers responded to 149 reports of scooters blocking sidewalks or roads and creating tripping hazards, said Austin 311 spokesman Paul Bestgen. Of those calls, 119 came in during August, Bestgen said.
Scooter companies have four hours to respond to an issue after it is reported and verified through the city’s 311 line, said Jen Samp, a spokeswoman for the city’s Transportation Department.
The scooter littering issue went viral last week after Emily Shryock spotted three scooters lined up every few feet on the sidewalk along 24th Street, leaving her without a way to squeeze her wheelchair through. She said was on her way to the University of Texas campus, where she works in the disability services office, and called 311.
Shryock posted photos of the blocked sidewalk on Facebook with the accompanying caption: “Folks need to realize not everyone has the privilege of being able to walk around these obstacles to continue on their way to work, school or play!”
The post has been shared more than 2,600 times as of Friday, and Shryock said she’s received mostly positive feedback.
The Bird scooter app developed the Bird Watchers Program after seeing Shryock’s Facebook post. The company promises to work with local communities “to ensure that Birds are being parked, ridden and picked up correctly,” a Bird spokesperson said.
“We sincerely apologize for the unfortunate and embarrassing misplacement of our vehicles in Austin. We have been in touch directly with Emily to convey our apologies, and have immediately implemented new processes to correct this going forward,” the company said in an emailed statement.
Lime, another scooter app with 750 city-approved scooter permits, said it requires its users to take a photo of their scooter after parking it to make sure it’s done correctly. A Lime spokesperson said they try to respond to parking-related calls within two hours.
“Lime holds the right to fine and/or deactivate any riders who continually violate local parking and traffic laws,” it said in a statement.
Bird officials were at a Thursday forum hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance and the city’s Transportation Department where community members gave feedback on dockless mobility systems, including rental scooters, said Casey Burack, general counsel and vice president of government affairs for the alliance.
Shryock told the Statesman that she is “far from the only person who has run into these types of challenges.”
She thinks the solution would be to ban scooters from all sidewalks.
“We’re all really frustrated because we’re all active, productive members of the community and our ability to do that is really impeded by these scooters and devices that are blocking our ability to get where we want and need to go,” she said.