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City scrambles for new law, permits after scooters launch early


Highlights

The city of Austin staff is ditching a pilot and pitching a new city law after two companies start operations.

Austin City Council members Tuesday were uncomfortable with the haste to react to the scooter incursion.

City officials say existing ordinances don’t give them clear authority to control use of city right of way.

Austin City Council members, with fresh memories of the fractious fight over ride-hailing in 2016, made it clear Tuesday that they are uncomfortable with the sudden entry of electric rental scooters into the Austin market and city officials’ attempts to quickly address the situation.

For now, at least, the council is expected to consider on April 26 an ordinance that would attempt to patch Austin law to address the decisions by Bird Rides and LimeBike in the past two weeks to begin renting several hundred scooters. A pilot program for dockless bikes and scooters was expected to start this summer, but the two companies jumped the gun.

“I’m really distressed about how several of the companies have rolled out their product in advance of the pilot or an ordinance,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said at a meeting of the council’s Mobility Committee.

If the proposed ordinance passes, city officials indicated, the pilot program will be shelved in favor of a permit-based program that would begin about May 1.

The city’s Transportation Department impounded some scooters in the first week after Bird scooters hit the streets but quickly returned them without levying fines because officials said existing ordinances did not make it clear that rental operations could not occur on city-owned sidewalks and streets.

The proposed ordinance does not contain specifics about how many bikes or scooters it would allow companies to put on the streets. It also doesn’t provide details on a $30 per device fee that Transportation Director Robert Spillar laid out in a memo Monday. When Council Member Ann Kitchen asked about the omission, Spillar asked if he could answer that question outside the meeting, and Kitchen assented.

The four-member committee did not vote on the proposed ordinance, which also would specify that scooter and dockless bike companies could only release their vehicles onto Austin streets after being granted a city license good for six months, something they would have to renew. Committee members said the ordinance nonetheless will move to the full council April 26.

Elliott McFadden, who runs B-Cycle, the city-owned, dock-based bike rental program, asked the council members to “not rush through this process … and (to) avoid the mistakes other cities have been making with dockless bikeshare.”

“Why would you adopt a new policy before we’ve heard from the public?” he asked.

The proposed ordinance would also prohibit leaving such rental vehicles haphazardly on city streets and sidewalks, as has been the case since Bird Rides and LimeBike began renting scooters in Central Austin. Instead, the companies would have to submit a “unit placement plan” for city approval showing how the scooters and bikes would be handled.

The law would allow the city to cite noncomplying companies with Class C misdemeanors, which carry a fine of up to $500.

“People who are going to ride (scooters) need to ride them safely and not just throw them down somewhere” when they’re done, Kitchen told the American-Statesman.

As for setting a limit on the number of bikes or scooters a company could put into the Austin market, Kitchen said: “What we don’t want to see are stacks of abandoned scooters. That’s not good for the city; that’s not good for the company.”

City officials are rushing to avoid what happened in Dallas late last year, when thousands of rental bikes were loosed on streets, sidewalks and trails, causing an unsightly and cumbersome nuisance for pedestrians.



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