Dockless doodads on the march
Scooters are a hit, but Council Member Alter wonders if they’re making us fatter
In the month of August, dockless scooters in Austin accounted for nearly 300,000 trips, a colossal number considering that everyone who sets foot on the things immediately turns into a 24-year-old virgin.
That figure came out of a presentation delivered by Austin Transportation Department staff to the City Council Mobility Committee on Thursday afternoon.
Combined with dockless bicycles — both the old-fashioned pedal variety and Jump’s handy-dandy electric-assist machines — the relatively new free-floating mobility devices racked up 310,200 trips covering a total distance of 374,900 miles during the Central Texas Hell Month.
Preliminary data shows that since May — dockless companies began operating legally in Austin back in May — the city’s larger transportation system has claimed the lives of 24 people. Ten were in cars, five on motorcycles, and 14 pedestrians (presumably all killed by motor vehicles). However, neither dockless bikes nor scooter have managed to post a single fatality.
Nonetheless, Austin EMS crews have responded to 37 scooter-related injuries, a handful of which have made for sensationalized coverage by mainstream outlets that otherwise ignored the 2,336 injuries wrought by cars.
And, as Assistant Director of Smart Mobility Jason JonMichael explained of scooters to the Committee, “When you look at the miles driven… that crash rate is 0.00006 percent.”
Several clear-eyed members of the public who proved capable of seeing past how utterly lame scooter-riders look and understanding the safe, environmentally-friendly utility they provide urged the committee members to consider reorienting the city’s transportation policies and infrastructure to better accommodate the new technology.
“We have a horrific traffic safety problem,” Farm&City’s Jay Blazek Crossley declared. “And it’s squarely, predominantly related to the failures of our car-priority lane system and the amount that people are forced to drive given our outdated land development code and misplaced transportation priorities.”
As for the common complaint of scooter bros hogging pedestrian spaces, AURA board member Nina Rinaldi pointed out, “When you see someone riding on the sidewalk, that really tells you that it’s not safe to ride anywhere else.”
But certainly the city isn’t made out of money and increases in the homestead exemption won’t exactly cover the cost of safer transportation infrastructure. Luckily, beloved former Council Member and current president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association Chris Riley was present to offer the committee a helpful idea or two.
Said the sage Riley: “The introduction of scooters at a mass scale has raised these pressures and these real safety concerns that need to be addressed and I think it’s very reasonable to consider whether we could have a fee associated with permits that would help us do that. If you had a fee of, say, a dollar per active scooter per day, that would be enough to very significantly move us down the road of getting that all-ages and abilities network that’s identified in the bicycle master plan.”
Other public communicants lauded dockless technology for its potential to boost accessibility for people who cannot drive, encourage more transit use, and also help mitigate planet-wide catastrophe in the form of climate change.
Of course, Council Member Alison Alter was able to see the dark side of scooters and drill down the real meat of the issue.
“I’m glad that a lot of people are using these vehicles that are all over the place,” she told staff. “But I don’t know from your data that it’s not just replacing people walking. We have an obesity problem as well.”
Left unsaid but clearly implied was her directive to staff to begin drafting ordinances that would create checkpoints at every third mile of the city’s primary travel corridors where drivers would have to pull over and perform five minutes of heart-healthy calisthenics, rain or shine, under penalty of having to report to City Hall on the weekends to do ten laps around Republic Square Park.
Alter also raised concerns about the liability issues involved when scooterers crash into other people. Noting that her own son had recently been run into by someone on a scooter — no emergency room trip was necessary, she said — Alter, who voted for the recent increase of the homestead exemption which took nearly $5 million out of the current budget, suggested that the Austin Police Department is short on resources when it comes to enforcement of dockless-related incidents. One potential solution, she said, is to charge the dockless companies fees to cover APD’s costs.
Alter also pointed out that the Texas Constitution forbids the city from giving away public right of way for free.
“And that is what we are doing,” said the elected official who sits on the Mobility Committee and yet appears to somehow not know that the city charges the dockless companies $30 per vehicle they put on the public right-of-way.
Finally, the District 10 rep insisted that ATD’s recent public survey of attitudes towards scooters overlooked a crucial slice of Austin’s citizenry.
“I heard from a lot of people who were unhappy with the survey because they just couldn’t say they didn’t like [scooters],” she said. “Because there are people who are not walking Downtown because they don’t like walking around on our sidewalks when there’s dockless scooters everywhere that may knock them over.”
Alter’s baffling and befuddled comments aside, Thursday’s briefing gave us a glimpse of future regulations the committee’s other members could consider as the District 10 rep occupies herself with lurid visions of a Wall-E-esque dystopia. Angela Rodriguez from the city’s Law Department offered that Council could legally restrict dockless riders from riding on certain sidewalks, create dismount zones, impose helmet requirements, limit one rider per scooter per ride, and mandate speed governors and lock-to mechanisms.
Or, Rodriguez said, Council could simply adjust the language of its existing bicycle regulations to include scooters. Which seems like a painfully obvious and simple solution.
Of course, with the current pace of technological innovation, it might be foolish to bet big money on the permanence of today’s dockless model. As others have pointed out, the dockless pedal bikes that were seen as the future of urban mobility as recently as just last year are now on what appears to be a terminal schneid. And even as purveyors of electric vehicles have ascended, fundamental questions about the dockless business model’s sustainability remain (what happens during the winter, for one).
For the moment though, I think it’s fine to bask in the immediate glow of multimodalism on the march. Even as Austinites embraced dockless doodads by the hundreds of thousands in April, Capital Metro also posted its most positive ridership report in years. I can’t imagine a Texan ever having regrets over declaring Mission Accomplished prematurely, but it seems obvious to me that the War on Cars is entering its twilight phase. Heckuva job, everyone.