In what has been a roughly yearlong effort to regulate the behavior of electric scooter riders, Austin City Council decided May 23 that electric scooter users, as well as cyclists, can ride on the city’s sidewalks, including those located downtown.
Since the electric mobility devices dropped onto the community’s streets last spring—there are 12,400 active scooters throughout Austin, according to city numbers—riders have struggled to comfortably find a home on Austin’s public infrastructure. Although no law prohibited riders from traveling on sidewalks, city officials and scooter companies explicitly discouraged the act. A previous version of the rules approved May 23 attempted to leave open the option of prohibiting riders from busy sidewalks.
However, city officials supported new rules May 23 that would officially open up sidewalks to bicycles and electric scooters, as long as they ride in a “reasonable and prudent manner,” yield to pedestrians and do not obstruct the path of or endanger disabled persons.
The new law included several other facets: Riders under 18 years old have to wear a helmet or else face a fine of $20 to $40, a fine which parents can also face if they let their children ride without a helmet; no use of mobile devices while riding, except when referencing a GPS system; no lane splitting or riding in the opposite direction of traffic; only one rider per mobility device unless it is explicitly built for two people; and riders must obey all traffic laws and signals.
The ordinance applies to all “micro-mobility devices” which it defines as, “a scooter, skateboard, or other compact device designed for personal micro-mobility, either privately owned or part of a shared micro-mobility service.”
Police officers or any other officer appointed by the transportation director can enforce these rules, which drew an objection from Robin Stallings, the executive director of advocacy group Bike Texas. Stallings expressed concern that non-police officers, without bias training or experience in citation writing, might unevenly enforce these new regulations.
Stallings also criticized the “reasonable and prudent manner” clause as vague and objected to the idea the city would require 16- and 17-year-olds to wear helmets while on bikes and scooters.
“We’ll let them drive a car, but we are actually going to require them to wear a helmet?” Stallings said. “There’s been no evidence that mandatory helmet laws actually increase helmet use. I don’t really see 17-year-olds or 16-year-olds or any other age walking around with a helmet in their hand for the once or twice a week when they might take the opportunity to jump on a micro-mobility device.”
The city legal department will now begin drafting the official ordinance language following some minor City Council amendments. A transportation department spokesperson said the rules will likely take effect sometime next month.