During the first two weeks of March in Austin, Texas, dockless scooters propelled people almost 530,000 miles, a distance greater than to the Moon and back again, according to Jason JonMichael, an official with the Austin Transportation Department in a story posted by KLBJ News Radio. JonMichael told the Urban Transportation Commission that “…we are moving more people than the Redline in Manhattan moves in a month, which is the gold standard by which all transit lines in the rest of the United States are compared to.”
Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival boosted electric scooter ridership during the first two weeks of the month 60% above a full month’s average of 300,000 miles.
In spite of—or because of—the scooters’ success, Austin elected officials and regulators have been struggling to regulate the new mobility tools, with a new wave of rules being slated for city council consideration on March 28. Concerns over helmet use as well as complaints from pedestrians, motorists and business owners have prompted the city to reduce the number of scooter operators while moving to reduce overall scooter numbers.
The city is even partnering with the Centers for Disease Control on a study examining the health hazards of scooter use—as if common sense does not already tell us that zipping around on a sidewalk or the side of a road might increase the risk of bodily injury. Unfortunately, as with the use of helmets while operating a motorcycle—still optional in liberty-loving Texas—the cost of serious head injuries is all too often borne by taxpayers through the public health system.
There’s a trend here. Austin essentially outlawed Uber and Lyft in 2016, though the Texas Legislature overruled it in 2017 and allowed them back in. And Austin has worked to put short-term rentals (Airbnb and similar services) on a path to extinction by 2022). These disruptive technologies have been tough for city government to come to grips with. And Austin’s answer, in each case of a technology it doesn’t understand, is to attempt to control it or even ban it.
In a city dominated by an electorate drawn from the ranks of UT Austin, the burgeoning high-tech community, and state government employees, the Austin City Council sees itself as progressive. Thus, it has difficulty seeing the irony in its Luddite impulses which threaten to alienate younger residents who lean left but expect to enjoy the latest innovations.
As ridesharing firms Uber and Lyft got off the ground in 2014, Austin’s highly regulated taxi industry mobilized its friends in government to neutralize the threat. The city council obliged by passing tough new ridesharing rules. Uber and Lyft countered by attempting to overturn the council’s regulation with a $9 million ballot initiative—the costliest in the city’s history. But when the effort failed, Uber and Lyft pulled out of the city—only to focus on making their case to the Texas State Legislature which passed a law in 2017 bringing rideshare regulations into uniformity across the Lone Star State.
As Uber and Lyft returned to Austin, the city’s traditional cab companies quickly lost market share, with some owners being forced into bankruptcy.
But even Uber and Lyft aren’t immune to creative destruction. By Spring of 2018, thousands of electric rental scooters made their appearance on Austin’s streets and sidewalks.
Scooter operators include Bird, Jump, Lime, Lyft, and Spin. Ford bought Spin in November for $100 million. Jump is a project of Uber.
By January of this year, more than a million rides had been logged by customers. Yet the city’s elected council and regulators warily eyed the new transportation mode and considered an ordinance to put limits on their use, while at the same time reducing the number of available scooters. At one point, 10 firms were licensed to deploy up to 500 devices downtown, with more slots available on the periphery, such as on the UT Austin campus.
Scooter operator Lime was hit with an order to reduce its fleet by 1,000 scooters after being accused by the city of violating this downtown fleet limit. Lime says the violation was inadvertent, as users took the scooters downtown, violating the city’s 500 vehicle threshold.
The city stopped licensing new scooters in January, with a city official saying the intent was to “limit the amount of chaos” during South by Southwest.
Some cities in the U.S. and globally have moved to completely ban the devices.
It’s true; some people do abuse scooters—just as they abuse cell phones by driving while distracted, and short-term rentals by throwing loud late-night parties. But there are already laws on the books that cover the potential problems with scooters. In their first 10 months of operation, dockless scooters generated 1,850 complaints out of 61,585 regarding nonemergency reports by the public, ranking 33rd on a list topped by missed garbage pickups (the city has a residential refuse collection monopoly) and loose dogs.
Passing new ordinances to restrict the use of scooters may feed a desire to do something, but enforcement of laws on the books paired with education and a few prudent lawsuits would likely do as much (or more) to improve safety.
In the meantime, the city of Austin is poised in 2020 to once again try to secure voter approval for a multibillion-dollar bond for a fixed rail commuter system—a plan unlikely to be dropped or changed in light of the massive success dockless scooters saw last week at Austin’s SXSW.