Bike-friendly Austin?

Pricey new pilot program charges bike companies to use popular Austin trails

New pilot program charges bike companies to use popular Austin trails

Austin skyline rail bikes cycling
Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is one of the spots that requires a permit to operate.  The Trail Foundation/Facebook

Austin ranks among the country’s top bike-friendly cities. In addition to a host of local bike shops, rental options abound, including the city’s B-cycles and thousands of recently arrived dockless bikes.

Meanwhile, the city continues to add and improve bike trails and bike lanes, and provides online and printed maps and other resources for riders. Local outfitters utilize these resources, offering guided bike tours as a way for visitors and residents alike to experience Austin.

Recently, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department launched a one-year pilot project to require companies operating bike tours on parkland to obtain a city concession permit. The permits cost $1,500 for a six-month period.

Permitted tour companies must follow rules for vendor groups, provide safety equipment for riders, outfit tour leaders in some type of uniform, and have reflectors and night lighting for bikes. The companies also need to regularly inspect their fleets, conduct a safety check prior to each tour, and provide the department with their common tour paths. Background checks are required for all employees interacting with the public, as well as CPR and first aid training for tour leaders.

The permits cover use of the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and adjacent park properties, Doug Sahm Hill, and, on a case-by-case basis, access to swimming pools and the Zilker Botanical Garden. The pilot project takes effect on January 1, 2019.

“Tour groups of human-powered devices already conduct operations in the park system, mainly the trail area,” said Jason Maurer, sales and events manager for PARD. “Austin city code requires that if you’re doing business on city property, you have some type of permit or license. You need some type of permission to operate commercially on city property so we can manage the resource and make sure people are operating their business in a proper manner.” (The city prohibits motorized vehicles on the hike-and-bike trail, including scooters and electric bicycles, unless the motor is turned off.)

PARD created the pilot in response to an inquiry about the need for bike tour companies to have permits, according to Maurer. The staff looked at existing tour operations, talked to park trail mangers and tour operators, and decided to launch the trial process for the existing companies.

Bike tour operators were reluctant to speak on the record while in the midst of the permit application process, but some say they find the cost and requirements burdensome. Several made the point that they are park advocates — after all, the nature of their business promotes physical activity, time outdoors, and enjoyment of the city. Most said that they are willing to provide some kind of compensation for use of park space, but feel the pilot project permit fee is too high, as are associated costs such as administrative time and additional insurance and training.  

Operators also noted that, to their knowledge, the city has received no complaints about bike tours on the trail or in parks. The activity leaves a small footprint, and companies already train their employees, have insurance, and pay taxes.

Many bike tour companies currently operating in Austin are mom-and-pop operations, and at least one owner expressed concern that this could price them out of business. Most said, however, that they feel they have no choice but to participate in the pilot — and pass on much of its cost to customers.

Maurer explains that fees are adopted once a year during the city budget process, with city staff making recommendations for fee amounts in the spring. Because PARD started working on the pilot project this past summer, staff used an existing $1,500 park concession permit fee for vendors such as food trucks.

Tour companies say they are in the parks for much less time and have less of an impact than the types of vendors for which that fee was established.

Participation in the pilot is optional, Maurer noted, but those who don’t participate won’t have a permit to operate. “The pilot project will provide feedback from trail users, thoughts on commercial groups on the trail, and feedback from tour operators,” he said. “We’ll continue to look at the numbers. We will have a better snapshot six months in, once we see what we’re getting in terms of feedback, and will go from there.”

He added that companies can apply for six-month permits from January to June and July to December, or for a specific six months, such as their peak season. In the future, single-day permits may be an option.

Maurer called the project the epitome of bike friendly. “Typically, operating on parkland [without a permit] would result in a cease-and-desist,” he said. “We created a program where they can operate in compliance. We do see the value in people enjoying the parks using human power.”

The public can provide feedback on the bike concessionaire pilot project by calling 3-1-1.