Dockless mobility spurs accessibility, safety concerns

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Accessibility compliance, sidewalk use and safety rank among the top concerns with regard to electric bike and scooters, according to attendees of a Dockless Mobility Update hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance on Thursday.

Representatives from the Austin Transportation Department presented their plans to address these concerns as well as to expand dockless mobility options.

Employees of Jump Bikes and scooter companies Lime and Bird were also present and answered questions.

Disruption

Following the authorization of a dockless mobility program by Austin City Council on April 27, the city enacted a set of emergency rules on May 7.

Shortly thereafter, dockless mobility companies received licensure to operate within a designated downtown zone, a 33-square-mile area roughly bordered by MoPac, Oltorf Street, Chicon Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

According to Laura Dierenfield, Active Transporation Division Manager for ATD, there are now seven licensed dockless mobility operators in Austin and more than 3,600 units in use.

The update meeting was part of a public engagement process intended to inform a final set of dockless mobility regulations to be adopted by City Council this fall.

The city has also created a community survey, open through Aug. 31, to collect feedback from residents and stakeholders. So far, it has garnered more than 4,000 responses, which Transportation Department spokesperson Marissa Monroy called “insane” in terms of participation.

Accessibility

Many attendees of the update meeting were members of the local disability community. Electric bikes and scooters, they said, make sidewalks unsafe for and sometimes inaccessible to wheelchair users and others with disabilities.

City staff and company representatives acknowledged the problem and said they were working together to address it.

Private companies are legally required to respond to accessibility violations caused by their dockless mobility vehicles within four hours of being notified of an issue.

City staff encouraged residents to call Austin 311 if they observe any violations.

“This is my number one concern,” a spokesperson for Bird said at the meeting. The company, he said, is hiring a team of “Bird watchers” to help ensure that users comply with accessibility requirements and rectify violations quickly. The team will help break up “nests”—or groups of unused scooters left around town.

Mobility

The city plans to renew the set of emergency rules when it expires next month as well as drafting a set of final rules for public input and City Council approval later this fall, Dierenfield said.

Additionally, the transportation department is also looking to expand dockless mobility options, which Dierenfield said provide cost-effective alternatives to cars.

Jump Bikes, Bird and Lime all offer discounted rates for Austin residents who receive state or federal benefits and are in various stages of expanding to historically underserved neighborhoods, including on the East side.

Despite the risk for injury, Dierenfield said dockless mobility options actually improve safety: “The more people walk, bike and use transit, the safer the city is generally.”

To promote safety, ATD is looking to bolster infrastructure—drawing on mobility bond funds allocated to bike, trail and sidewalk improvements—and develop ways of managing speed, possibly by enforcing a sidewalk speed limit for these motor vehicles or recommending that City Council adopt a new sidewalk ordinance in light of new dockless mobility options.

Jason JonMichael, assistant director of ATD, is hopeful that city staff and the private sector can work together to address these concerns during “this unique and wonderful time” of innovation and ideation.

“Every city in the United States is dealing with this in some kind of way,” he said.

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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