As Austin prepares to analyze use of scooters, bikes on public parkland, here is an explanation of how geofencing technology works

Two Bird scooters sit parked outside the Austin Central Library in downtown Austin. Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper
Two Bird scooters sit parked outside the Austin Central Library in downtown Austin. Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper

Two Bird scooters sit parked outside the Austin Central Library in downtown Austin. Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper

On Nov. 12, city staff from the Austin Parks and Recreation Department is scheduled to go in front of the Austin Urban Transportation Commission to deliver a report on the pilot program that has allowed electric scooters and bikes on some of Austin’s trails since January.

Armed with the data from that program, which began in early 2019, city staff is set to then take findings to the Parks and Recreation Board and eventually City Council, with an ultimate goal to devise a long-term solution for scooter and bike usage based on the data they have gathered.

In September, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department announced geofencing technology was established as part of the pilot program. The program, the city said, was designed to “discourage scooter usage on parkland” and came about in response to what the city called “growing concerns over safety and inappropriate use of micro mobility devices on parkland.”

Geofencing technology can vary slightly from operator to operator, but generally falls into two categories: speed reduction—limiting a scooter’s speed when it enters an area like the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail—and no-parking zones, which prevent a rider from ending a trip in a restricted area such as the trail, The University of Texas campus, Sixth Street on weekend nights or the Capitol grounds.

Lianna Leal is the Central Texas operations manager for Lyft, which operates 2,000 scooters in Austin. Leal said geofenced speed reductions and no-parking zones are in effect for some parts of Austin, and Lyft scooter riders can see those zones when they pull up the map on the app. According to Leal, Lyft “heavily relies” on the technology to create a safe space for their riders, and the company employs the technology all over the country, not just in Austin.

“Geofencing is one of our most powerful tools to keep the community safe. That’s the case nationwide,” Leal said.

Lime, which operates 5,000 scooters in Austin, first implemented geofencing along the hike and bike trail in fall 2018, according to Joe Deshotel, Lime's Texas manager of government relations and community relations. When a Lime rider approaches a geofenced area, the scooter reduces its speed to 8 mph and the user cannot lock it until he or she leaves that area.

“This effort, along with the 30 ‘No Scooters on the Trail’ signs that we produced and displayed at trailheads, has resulted in a positive response from riders,” Deshotel said in a statement.

In addition to speed reduction and no-parking zones for scooters, Uber applies a fine for riders on its Jump bikes and scooters if riders end their rides outside of its service area, or the zones where the vehicles are permitted to operate.

“We actively monitor rider behavior and partner with city officials and stakeholders to create a dialogue on when/where to utilize geofencing technology,” Uber Texas Communications Manager Travis Considine in an email said.

In total, there are 15,550 electric scooters and 2,050 electric bicycles permitted to operate in Austin. A spokesperson for the parks and recreation department said staff is set to present to the city’s boards and commissions before the end of the year before going in front of City Council at a date to be determined.


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