Wear: Scooters to keep rolling as city backs off locking requirement

July 27, 2018
Ralph Barrera
Macy Dunnigan and Blake Jimmerson spent a May afternoon tooling around Austin on a Bird electric scooter. Bird and Lime have become the predominant rental scooter vendors in the Austin market. RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Well, that was close.

But on Wednesday, if you want to go to the Scoot Inn, you will still be able to rent a scooter to get there.

City of Austin transportation officials have spent the summer doing a bit of a dance, both with the dockless scooter companies and, for what it’s worth, with me.

What inspired this bureaucratic soft-shoe was a requirement in the emergency rules for free-range electric scooters and bikes — put into effect in early May — declaring that all of the rental vehicles must have “lock-to” devices by Wednesday. Or vendors could opt for a currently infeasible and expensive alternative known as “haptic” technology, which uses global positioning and other complicated programming to theoretically prevent a scooter or bike from being improperly parked after a rental.

The point was to avoid a repeat of the Dallas Debacle, the besmirching of civic space with randomly parked (or abandoned) bikes that befell that city over the past year. The fear was particularly relevant because Austin officials expected a dozen or more scooter or bike companies to swarm into town and for each to get city permits for up to 500 vehicles. Under that scenario, downtown and surrounding neighborhoods quickly could have been home to 6,000 or more dockless vehicles.

As it happened, the city at this point has just over 2,000 permitted rental bikes and scooters and only four companies seriously in the dockless market, a number reduced in the past week when the Chinese bike-rental company Ofo pulled its yellow cycles out of Austin. The stand-down was part of a larger exit from the U.S. dockless scene by the company, which has seen disappointing results in North America.

But beyond the unexpectedly low number of vehicles, Austinites have been admirably orderly about parking them. Hanging around downtown as I do, given my place of business and duties, I’ve seen very few scooters or rental bikes haphazardly parked in the right of way this summer.

But still, that Aug. 1 deadline for the locking devices was hanging out there.

The remaining bike companies have no problem with it. Pace, with 500 permits, and Jump, with permits for 250 electric-assist bikes, already have locking devices on their equipment.

Not so Bird and Lime, the dominant companies in this less than a year old dockless scooter industry. Their vehicles have no locks (theft is not really much of a problem because of the scooters’ GPS devices and inability to roll when not rented), and officials tell me that there is no lock-to product out there to retrofit to their scooters. Beyond that, the companies (backed up by Katie Smith Deolloz, executive director of Bike Austin) said the cycling community was less than thrilled at the prospect of a thousand or more scooters taking up precious, limited space on bike racks in Central Austin.

“I’m very much hoping that the (lock-to) rule gets changed,” Deolloz told me early last week. “If they don’t comply with it by Aug. 1, all the scooters go away. And I love the scooters. … The more we can get people out of single-occupancy vehicles for these short trips, the better for the community.”

Throughout June and July, the companies pressured the Austin Transportation Department, which is writing permanent rules, to eliminate or at least delay that Aug. 1 deadline. The alternative would be a second moratorium on scooter rentals; the companies pulled their vehicles off the streets for a couple of weeks in early May while the temporary rules were under construction.

The scooter companies, of course, had no interest in shutting down again. And a nonnegligible slice of the public would have been disappointed by that as well, given the popularity of the devices. Lime, with 750 permits now (the city granted it an extra 250 to serve the West Campus area near the University of Texas), says it has trouble keeping all of its scooters charged through an entire day because they are rented so often.

I too called the transportation office several times in the past couple of months, looking to see what was up with the new rules. I kept being told that they would be done by next week or were two weeks out. And then that time would pass and another two-week clock would start.

Last week, they still weren’t really ready to tell me much.

“We recognize that there are technical barriers and other operational realities that make the lock-to requirement difficult to meet for scooters in particular,” the department emailed in response to my written questions. Officials said they would be holding a “workshop” with the dockless companies to discuss all this.

Thursday, with just a few days remaining until the deadline, the city held that workshop.

And it blinked.

According to a Lime rep and the city, at that meeting the city agreed to hold off for now on enforcing the lock-to requirement while it finishes up a revision of those rules it had so quickly put together back in early May. That could mean different rules for rental bikes and for rental scooters, and getting rid of a requirement that the scooters have physical permit stickers on them.

That’s been a problem because the scooters get picked up every evening to be recharged, and the stickers have tended to get ripped up or off in that process. The dockless companies quickly grew tired of having to pay $20 to replace them. I was told that the scooters will now have virtual stickers embedded in the app.

It’s not clear when the new rules will come forth. Sometime this fall, it appears.

Back in early April, when the Bird scooters first appeared on Austin streets without warning, I felt a bit silly at first writing about them. They seemed more like a child’s toy than transportation; my daughter wore the wheels off one when she was 9 years old. And the names — Bird, Lime, GOAT — don’t scream gravitas.

But my wife and I have been lucky enough to do a good deal of traveling this summer, from Honolulu to Washington, D.C., and some places in between. We’ve seen the Limes and Birds (and some Skips as well) everywhere we’ve gone and read about the fights those cities are having with the companies about how to regulate them.

People just like the things, and they fill a real need in congested downtowns for short hops. Not silly at all.