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New electric scooters cruising into Austin collide with controversy

New electric scooters cruising into Austin collide with controversy

Bird Austin electric scooter
Bird has already had more than 50 bikes impounded by Austin officials since it launched in early April. Courtesy photo

Birds flocked into Austin earlier this month, but in this case it wasn’t grackles causing a ruckus. Rather, it was a flock of electric scooters from Bird Rides, a venture-backed, Santa Monica-based rental app that recently launched in Austin.

While electric scooters may sound like an easy, eco-friendly way to get around traffic congestion, the scooters have been met with controversy in other cities because of safety concerns and unused scooters left in the way of cyclists and pedestrians (scooters are unlocked via an app so they don’t use docking systems). According to the Los Angeles Times, Bird agreed to pay more than $300,000 in fines to the city of Santa Monica earlier this year in order to quell the controversy.

Here in Austin, city officials had already begun seeking feedback on dockless bikes and scooters when Bird launched in early April. The Austin Transportation Department notified Bird that it would impound scooters left in violation of city code. So far, the city has impounded — and released — 55 of Bird’s electric scooters, according to KXAN

“We share the city's focus on safety and their belief that any vehicle that is abandoned or creates a hazard in the public right of way should be removed,” Bird spokesperson Kenneth Baer tells CultureMap. “Throughout this process, we have been in positive talks with the city to ensure we protect the safety of riders and the community, and to find a framework that works for everyone.”

Baer adds that Bird riders must be over age 18 and consent to a safety agreement; those who violate Bird’s terms of service can be removed from the platform.

Meanwhile, another California-based rideshare company also has its eyes on Austin. "We've been in conversations with city and community leaders about our electric scooters, and are very interested in bringing them to Austin,” Mary Caroline Pruitt, communications manager for LimeBike, tells CultureMap. “Austin has always been a leader in forward thinking and innovation, and we think residents and visitors will embrace our electric scooters as a new, modern mobility solution. We look forward to continuing to work with the city to offer Austinites this convenient ride option.”

On April 16, the Austin American-Statesman reported that LimeBike has already put more than 200 of its electric scooters on Central Austin streets. Both companies charge $1 plus 15 cents per minute for use of rental scooters.

This isn't the first time an innovative transportation option has had difficulty cruising into the Austin market. Regulating ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft proved so contentious in 2016 that both services paused operations in Austin for almost a year before resuming them after statewide regulatory framework overrode city regulations. 

Clearly, Austin needs a remedy for its traffic woes, but it remains to be seen if electric scooter sharing will be an antidote — or another annoyance.