The rapid spread of the on-demand transportation is prompting officials in the Texas city to evaluate the rules and enforcement — especially when it comes to public safety.
(TNS) — The city of Austin will push for increased regulation of the swarms of downtown scooter riders and could empower police to issue citations to riders they deem irresponsible.
For scooter users, it likely means no more barreling down sidewalks at breakneck speeds or weaving through pedestrians in a manner a police officer might view as rising beyond annoyance to dangerous. So far, draft language for scooter citations requires riders to be "reasonable and prudent," according to Jason Redfern, a parking enterprise manager for the Transportation Department.
It has been nine months since the city scrambled to create dockless electric scooter regulations after companies exploited a loophole in city code and began operating in Austin. Now, it's time to update those rules, transportation officials said Thursday during a presentation to the City Council Mobility Committee.
"We are ready to start talking about modified legislation through [the Austin City Council] and to talk about how we move forward," said Robert Spillar, director of the Transportation Department.
Spillar's comments will likely give pause to the seven dockless companies active in Austin. Several of the City Council members at the meeting showed enthusiasm for a wide array of changes to local scooter regulations, including increasing operating fees to such companies as Lime and Bird to gain revenue for transportation infrastructure.
"I ... welcome the opportunity to accelerate building of our bike infrastructure capacity through fees," Council Member Alison Alter said. "They are using our infrastructure for free right now."
Other possibilities floated include greater penalties for riders who ditch scooters in certain areas and sanctions that could extend to the rental companies if their scooters and bikes are found in creeks and lakes. Transportation staffers expect to have an updated fee schedule available for review by March 28.
The regulatory updates come as attitudes about scooters continue to evolve. The city announced Wednesday that scooters would be banned from parts of Sixth Street and other pedestrian zones being closed during SXSW. Austin's first scooter fatality occurred Feb. 1, when a 21-year-old died after colliding with an Uber driver's vehicle downtown.
The city and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been gathering data about scooter usage and related injuries, and Austin transportation officials said many cities around the U.S. are looking at Austin as a test case for dockless electric scooters.
According to Thursday's presentation to the Mobility Committee, 71 injuries resulted from scooter rides between Dec. 1 and Jan. 31. However, roughly half of those reported injuries were listed as "likely" but "unverifiable." During the same period, motor vehicle crashes in Austin resulted in 1,359 injuries and two deaths.
Epidemiologists with the CDC are focusing on 37 scooter-related EMS calls and 68 injuries reported over a 60-day period, from Sept. 5 to Nov. 4. Austin became the first city the CDC is studying to identify patterns associated with dockless scooter crashes and how to prevent them. That study should be completed before the end of March, according to Jeff Taylor, an epidemiologist with Austin Public Health.
That data is needed, city officials say.
"Best as I can tell going around the city, everyone is in one of two groups," Mayor Steve Adler said. "Half have had near-death experiences. The other half can't imagine life without scooters. ... Everyone's experience depends on what anecdotal experiences they've had."
Dockless companies are licensed to deploy 13,500 scooters and 2,350 bikes in Austin, and the scooters are used far more often. In January, users took 263,053 trips that totaled 270,692 miles. During the same period, only 554 dockless bike trips were taken, for 1,297 miles traveled.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, filed a bill Thursday that would mandate that the state study the economic impact, liability issues and safety concerns tied to dockless scooters.
"This technology and the businesses pushing its adoption, however, are new to our communities," Rodriguez said in a news release. "The abrupt, and, in some cases premature, deployment of scooters has revealed thorny issues that suggest the need for regulation. But without rigorous, objective data, it is unclear what combination of policies would best serve Texans and their local governments without stifling innovation."
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