Editorial: Speed matters, but safety must prevail in new scooter rules

If we’ve learned anything from the tug-of-war over new transportation services, it’s that we all want to get somewhere sooner.

After a bruising battle with Uber and Lyft a couple of years ago, Austin once again finds itself confronted with app-based ride providers hitting the streets before the city has rules in place to address public safety. The rentable scooters that Bird and LimeBike propped on city sidewalks this month provide a quick, convenient alternative to walking or trudging through Austin traffic by car or bus. But as riders zip past people on foot and drop the scooters in places that can block walkways, pedestrians’ safety is a legitimate concern.

The City Council took an important first step early Friday to regulate the scooters as well as the thousands of “dockless” bicycles, able to be picked up and dropped off anywhere, that could arrive in Austin soon. The council rightly responded quickly to bring this new breed of rentable rides into the fold, avoiding a replay of the months-long span of stings and citations the city leveled at ride-hailing drivers in 2014 before the council passed an ordinance that fall allowing Lyft and Uber to legally operate.

But the quick response this time had a tradeoff: The city had to cut short the public engagement and rule-making process it had planned as part of a dockless bicycle pilot program officials slated for later this summer. And even with an ordinance now in place requiring scooter and bicycle providers to obtain a city license before launching their service, the city still needs to craft the specific conditions for such a license.

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Those rules, which the Austin Transportation Department can establish without council approval, will be critical to addressing the public safety aspects of these services. At the council’s urging, the department will flesh out the rules and launch the permitting process as soon as possible, bypassing the normal 40-day public comment period. To protect Austin residents and visitors, we urge the transportation department to:

• Impose substantive insurance and performance bond requirements on scooter and bicycle companies, ensuring money is available to cover any injuries or costs related to picking up abandoned devices.

• Work with the companies to develop a clear, concise education campaign addressing whether scooters should be used on sidewalks or bike lanes, where dockless vehicles should be parked and how riders should safely pass pedestrians. This information should be relayed through the companies’ apps and on signs where scooters and bikes may be parked, among other places.

• Establish a clear forum, possibly through 311, for the public to file complaints about abandoned devices or nuisance concerns.

• Monitor the use and parking of scooters and dockless bicycles in high-traffic areas, and provide education or enforcement as needed.

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As Austin will be opening its sidewalks to hundreds of rentable scooters and bicycles without the benefit of a pilot program to work out the kinks, city officials should closely watch these services and update the rules and permit fees as needed. Officials should review the companies’ data to identify potential trouble spots and examine whether any barriers are preventing services from expanding to underserved areas. They should also work with the companies and Resource Recovery to develop proper disposal procedures for worn-out devices, including the scooters’ lithium batteries.

In addition to holding these services accountable, Austin must show it will be true to its word. City officials warned companies not to launch before a program was in place, and several scooter and bicycle startups have remained on the sidelines in good faith, even as Bird and LimeBike rushed in and claimed the competitive advantage. The ordinance approved this week allows licenses only to those companies in good standing; those that jumped the gun may have to remove their scooters from the streets until they pay a fine and obtain permits.

Austin faces vexing transportation challenges, particularly with the “last mile” problem, that distance between the nearest transit stop and a person’s home, workplace or other destination. Bikes and scooters that can be rented for a few dollars via a smartphone app could help some riders easily traverse that gap.

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But these dockless devices create a “last foot” problem, Jason JonMichael, the transportation department’s “smart mobility” chief, recently told council members. The business model is predicated on the convenience of being able to pick up and drop off a scooter or bike virtually anywhere — at spots that may be extremely inconvenient for passersby, particularly those with disabilities.

It’s too early to tell whether these rentable scooters and bikes will be a passing trend or a game changer on Austin’s transportation scene. But the potential benefits for riders and safety concerns for pedestrians rightly prompted a swift regulatory response from the city.

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