Scooter skirmish begins as LimeBike rolls into Austin


LimeBike, while holding off on rental bikes, released about 200 electric scooters Monday on Austin streets.

The company joined the scooter fray here after the city declined to fine Bird Rides for scooters.

Austin officials are rushing a scooter ordinance through the city process, with a first hearing Tuesday.

A scooter war has broken out in Austin.

LimeBike put more than 200 electric rental scooters on Austin streets Monday. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company, according to a Monday letter to Mayor Steve Adler and City Manager Spencer Cronk, had lost patience with what it saw as the city’s timid reaction to Bird Rides putting out similar scooters April 5.

“It is now apparent that our competitor will be allowed to operate without any significant repercussions,” LimeBike CEO and founder Tony Sun said in the letter. According to the letter, the company has “Lime-S” scooters on the ground in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The sudden incursion of the scooters — low, two-wheeled platforms with waist-high handlebars — has forced the Austin Transportation Department to accelerate plans to regulate dockless bikes and scooters. The city had expected to begin a pilot program this summer, and several companies renting two-wheeled vehicles had delayed entering the Austin market while the city crafted rules.

“The city code is outdated and does not specifically cite dockless mobility options … pertaining to right of way use,” Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said in a memo Monday to the City Council. “In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, (the department) recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot time frame.”

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The council’s Mobility Committee, at a Tuesday meeting, will consider an ordinance that would beef up city laws having to do with blocking sidewalks and streets, and commercial use of city right of way.

That eight-page ordinance would bar businesses from allowing the scooters to park on a “street, alley or sidewalk,” a reference to Bird’s practice of arranging for host businesses to be “nests.” The scooters are gathered up each night, recharged and then placed early the next day at the hosts’ properties, the company says.

The proposed law would give the Austin transportation director the authority to bar a person or business from operating on city rights of way if the operations are determined to be “detrimental to safety and mobility.”

Spillar recommends granting six-month permits to dockless companies beginning May 1, with a fee of $30 per bike or scooter and a limit of 500 bikes or scooters for each licensed company.

A violation of the ordinance would be a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of as much as $500 under existing City Code language, the proposal says.

That ordinance, assuming it clears the Mobility Committee, could be considered by the City Council as soon as April 26.

The LimeBike app at midday Monday showed the scooters sprinkled from Travis Heights to the University of Texas campus. Two of the vehicles, black with bright green accents, sat idle in front of Allen’s Boots on South Congress Avenue about noon as two men whisked by on Bird scooters. Within the next couple of minutes, four more Bird customers rolled by, illustrating LimeBike officials’ concern that their competitor has gotten a jump on them in the Austin market.

An executive with Bird Rides Inc. said Monday that the company welcomes the creation of a law permitting dockless scooter operations and setting out parameters for the new businesses.

“They’ve actually been very cordial with us,” David Estrada, Bird’s chief legal officer and government relations head, said of city officials. “They don’t have an ordinance on the books right now that deals with this type of vehicle. I think they do want to accommodate us.”

Estrada declined to say with any specificity how many scooters it has on the streets now but said the fleet is in the “several hundred range.”

LimeBike does not intend to put its rental bikes out on the street, officials said. City officials have said any companies that put out dockless rental bikes before that pilot begins would be barred from participating in it.

The city said last week that through Thursday it had impounded 55 of Bird’s scooters but then released them to the company without fines. Over the weekend, the black-and-white scooters were spotted throughout the South Congress entertainment district, on the street and on sidewalks. Bird officials had said last week that they would try to have customers use and leave the scooters only in the street.

“This is all about user education,” Estrada said Monday. “It’s a brand-new system. People haven’t done this.”

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