- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The lobbyist for Lyft was flabbergasted, and more than a little contemptuous, at my admission.
It was early May 2016, almost two years after Uber and Lyft had begun operations (illegally) in Austin, and one day before the election on the proposed ordinance the ride-hailing companies had crafted to replace one enacted by the Austin City Council. I was standing beside the lobbyist at a rally of Lyft drivers when I told him that I had never taken an Uber or Lyft ride.
How in the world, he asked, could I effectively cover the issue without having uploaded the app and experienced some rides first hand? No problem, I said. You don’t have to have designed or ridden a rocket to cover the space program, or served in a legislature to write about policymaking.
With a new disruptive transportation technology suddenly popping up on Austin streets — dockless, standup electric scooters available for rent by the minute — this time I decided to be an early adopter. The 20-somethings who sit near me in the newsroom, whom I often pester to solve technological challenges for me, won’t be surprised to hear the pioneering effort went less than smoothly.
I had downloaded both the Bird and LimeBike apps the day before, but was surprised when neither prompted me to enter a credit card number. How could I pay for the $1 ride fee (plus 15 cents a minute) without doing that?
A colleague who took a Lime ride the day before my first run pointed out to me (yes, she is under 30) that I could go to the app menu, look for “wallet” and upload a card. Bird, it turns out, has the same thing, only it is labeled “payment.” I decided, to replicate a spur-of-the-moment scooter initiate, to do that step only when I was at the device trying to begin a rental.
Predictably, that was a glitchy experience. I had to try a second card with Bird, and I had trouble scanning in a driver’s license. But eventually, with both apps, I attained full customer status. Then came the real trouble.
Kickstands and bells
With fellow American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman recording the scene, I couldn’t get the power on the Bird scooter to kick in. I kept pushing down on what I thought was the accelerator lever with my left thumb, but to no avail. We gave up and headed up South Congress Avenue to find a Lime scooter. Oh, and in both cases, I initially forgot to raise the kickstand (insert eye-roll here).
Only two days later, with the help of a couple of strangers who happened to be standing near yet another Bird scooter, did I discover that I had in fact been pushing down on a lever that is supposed to ring a bell. The accelerator lever is on the other side. I know, I know. User error. That second Bird scooter worked just fine.
So did the Lime scooter that I found outside Jo’s Coffee. I was too nervous about my scooter-piloting skills (justifiably) to take on South Congress, so I headed up James Street instead.
There is a steep hill there. And, let’s just say, I have long since left my college weight behind. The scooter motor managed to keep me moving on the grade, but at a toddler’s pace.
Up top, on a quiet and level street, I was able to get up to speed. But I was a bit shaky, and a mediocre turner. The gist: Riding one of these things takes some practice unless you used a nonmotorized one earlier in life, an opportunity I missed by approximately two generations.
That also means that those approaching you on the sidewalk aboard a scooter, or showing up suddenly behind you, might or might not really know what they’re doing.
No laughing matter
My comic strivings aside, and despite the innately silly aspect of scooters suddenly becoming a public issue, what is going on in Austin right now really is no laughing matter.
A few other cities, such as Santa Monica, Calif., and San Francisco, once the dam broke and scooter companies flooded in with thousands of the devices, have experienced genuine problems on their sidewalks and streets. People trip over the scooters when people leave them flat on the sidewalk rather than setting them up on kickstands, and people with disabilities can be stymied by them. People leave them in odd places, or toss the machines into bodies of water. Pedestrians worry about collisions.
The city of Santa Monica (where Bird was founded) in recent months fought a legal battle with the company over the scooters, and San Francisco officials last week issued cease-and-desist letters to Bird, LimeBike and Spin.
The scooters, according to their promoters, are supposed to offer a solution to what new urbanists call the “last mile” problem. That is, when people need to go an appreciable distance across a city (after arriving by bus or train, or to get to and from lunch, for instance), a rental bike or an electric scooter can fill that role without adding to traffic problems or throwing off pollution from an internal combustion engine.
But as the city of Austin’s “smart mobility” director, Jason JonMichael, said to City Council members last week, there is also a “last foot” problem with dockless bikes and scooters. When the essence of the attraction is that you can rent them anywhere and leave them anywhere when the ride is done, people will leave them … anywhere. Meaning, often, in the middle of the sidewalk.
I encountered a Lime scooter last week smack in the middle of one of those narrow wooden passageways next to a construction site along South Congress. Maybe it was just a prank or a protest by a nonfan of the scooters. or perhaps just the act of an inconsiderate person. And it was no big deal for me to move it aside. But a blind person or someone in a wheelchair would have had trouble.
So the city is now embarking on a regulatory process with these aggressive and well-funded companies, just as it did in 2014, 2015 and 2016 with Uber and Lyft. That battle required massive amounts of time by city officials, elected and nonelected, tremendous expense by both sides, and ultimately a huge squandering of community passion.
And then, in the end, nullification by the Legislature last year when it passed a bill overriding local ride-hailing ordinances.
Will legislators intervene again? The Legislature hasn’t shown much interest in scooter issues over the years. But the dockless bike and scooter companies, if they are unhappy with what Austin and other cities decide to do in the coming months, could start calling lobbyists and lawmakers.
I talked to one lobbyist the other day who, just hours before, had taken a scooter to the Austin Club on East Ninth Street, ground central for big steaks and big stakes. I can’t help but wonder what will happen if a hefty pile of idle scooters or bikes ends up blocking that particular door.