Wear: Invasion of the sidewalk snatchers soon to descend on Austin

Updated May 04, 2018
Scooters and pedestrians were able to coexist in Austin without much trouble during the unscheduled April debut of the rental vehicles, but a new city law, which will take effect in a week or two, will make it possible for thousands of dockless scooters and bikes to roll down city sidewalks and streets. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This is a story about how weird things are about to get on the streets and sidewalks of Central Austin.

On April 26, the day the Austin City Council was scheduled to consider an ordinance governing dockless scooter and bike rentals, I decided to scooter over to City Hall for the start of the 10 a.m. meeting. Seemed appropriate to the subject matter, and maybe fun, and the municipal edifice is less than a mile from the American-Statesman building.

As it happened, a Bird scooter was parked near our front entrance, so I rented the thing. I took the sidewalk over the Congress Avenue bridge, which had only a few pedestrians at that midmorning hour. Even so, it made me nervous as a still-novice scooterer to pass so close to them, with a railing just to my right and water 50 feet below. Some of them appeared less than delighted to see me roll by.

Then I got to West Cesar Chavez Street, which had little traffic going west, so I rode in the actual traffic lane. As I neared Lavaca Street and City Hall, I could hear cars approaching behind me. Overly conscious of that threat, I was too slow to brake for the light ahead and had to awkwardly jump off the scooter at the last second to avoid hitting a car ahead of me. Embarrassing.

Still, I made it to the meeting in one piece.

It turned out that the council, as they are wont to do, delayed taking up the dockless rental item until after 9:30 p.m. (Actually, they got to it as Thursday was becoming Friday. Sweet.) So at about 5 p.m., taking a break to walk with my wife and have dinner, I scootered back to the newspaper. This time, when I got to the Congress Avenue bridge, I looked ahead at a sidewalk thick with people walking and three southbound traffic lanes stuffed with slow-moving cars in afternoon commute traffic.

No way was I going to two-wheel through that minefield, even at 15 mph or less. So I ended the scooter rental and walked the rest of the way.

Here’s the point: Those sidewalks, at least the ones roughly bound by Interstate 35, Barton Springs Boulevard, North Lamar Boulevard and West 29th Street north of the university, are about to get very crowded. And people and vehicles are going to be traveling at differing speeds, including zero mph for many of the several thousand dockless scooters and bicycles — the idle ones waiting to be rented — that are about to hit town.

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

I should clarify what I mean by “about to.” When the council approved that ordinance early on the morning of April 27 — as Papa might have said, no good laws happen after midnight, right? — we were told a new licensing program for the rental vehicles could begin just four days later on May 1.

Not surprisingly, especially given the council’s last-minute changes to the ordinance, putting the program in place is taking longer. In fact, Austin Transportation Department officials now say it could be as late as May 14 before they are ready to take applications for licenses from the 15 or so bike and scooter rental companies eagerly (and anxiously) waiting to apply. Then it will take two or three business days, I’m told, for the city to verify the insurance and performance bonds submitted by the companies and award operating permits.

So the scooter hiatus that began April 29 likely will end up lasting close to three weeks, something that doesn’t sit well with Bird and LimeBike. The two companies caused quite a stir by dropping close to 1,000 scooters on Central Austin last month, but both agreed to take them out of circulation after the new law passed. Well, they “agreed” because the new law gave the city the authority to impound nonpermitted scooters (or bikes) and charge $200 for their release from captivity.

But sometime in the next 10 days to two weeks, we’ll begin to see not only the return of the scooters, but also a colorful mix of “pedal” bikes (bikes, to you and me) and electric motor-assisted bikes from companies like Ofo, Jump, MoBikes, Zagster and Spin. And each company, under city rules, will be able to put out at least 500 vehicles.

The city rules, based on the debate before council, likely will allow the companies to distribute more than 500 rental bikes or scooters each as long as they release them into what the city defines as “underserved areas.” It’s not clear what that means yet, although at one meeting city officials appeared to be including the West Campus area. Really? Anyone who has looked at the Bird or LimeBike apps while they were operating here could see that the devices were planted heavily throughout that student residential haven.

Anyway, we’re talking at least 7,000 scooters and bikes suddenly sitting around or in use in what is about a 4-square-mile area, along with several hundred existing B-Cycle bikes, Segways, the odd unicycle or skateboard here and there, and, oh yes, the privately owned bikes already plying the streets. Yes, people can rent the bikes and scooters and go anywhere, and the companies likely will be leaving some of their inventory outside that central core. Still, it’s a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of them will be concentrated where the bulk of likely users are.

RELATED: Where it’s legal to ride scooters and bikes

City law allows both the bikes and scooters to be used on street lanes, bicycle lanes or sidewalks, with the exception of a handful of downtown streets that include Congress Avenue, along with a piece of 15th Street and the Drag near the University of Texas. So people trying to walk on the sidewalks — and Central Austin has become thick with pedestrians over the past generation — are going to have a lot of new competition.

As for the parked scooters and bikes, which have been a big problem in other metropolitan areas after the vehicles were introduced en masse over the past year or so, city transportation officials tell me they’ll be considered legal as long as there is “three feet of clearance” on the sidewalk. Really?

Downtown has a mixture of sidewalk designs ranging from about 10 feet wide to 18 feet, but those sidewalks are already pockmarked with bike racks, trash cans, benches, the occasional sidewalk cafe, trees, lamp posts and people just hanging out.

Three feet of clearance between parked bikes and scooters? With unsteady scooter and bike riders weaving in and out through people wearing ear buds and staring at their phones?

This is going to get really interesting.