How Will Scooters Function in Chicago? My Trip to Austin, Texas, Offered a Preview

Scooters by the statue of Angelina Eberly, who prevented the theft of the Texas archives from Austin in 1842 by firing a cannon at the thieves. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Scooters by the statue of Angelina Eberly, who prevented the theft of the Texas archives from Austin in 1842 by firing a cannon at the thieves. Photo: Lynda Lopez

This past week, I traveled to Austin, Texas for the TransitCenter foundation’s Women Changing Transit mentorship program. On the bus ride to my hotel near downtown Austin, I noticed the proliferation of dockless electric scooters, particularly on South Congress Avenue, a busy retail district.

I had seen scooters in other cities, most recently in Los Angeles. Multiple dockless mobility service providers are licensed to operate in downtown Austin’s project coordination zone. Supplemental licenses are also granted to deploy additional vehicles outside of the zone. The biggest operators in the city are Bird and Lime. Bird operates 1,000 scooters downtown and 4,000 outside of the zone, and Lime operates 500 scooters downtown and 4,500 elsewhere in the city.

I always try to view new transportation forms through the lens of safety, access, and mobility. I keep in mind that, as a visitor to a city, you don’t always get the big picture. From walking a few miles along South Congress into downtown Austin and near the University of Texas at Austin, I was surprised by how many scooters were being used and, in general, how neatly they were lined on sidewalks in the “street furniture zone” near the curb. I seldom saw scooters toppled over or obstructing foot traffic.

This scooter and dockless bike sidewalk obstruction along South Congress Avenue was the exception to the rule -- the devices were usually parked in a fairly orderly way. Photo: Lynda Lopez
This scooter and dockless bike sidewalk obstruction along South Congress Avenue was the exception to the rule — the devices were usually parked in a fairly orderly way. Photo: Lynda Lopez

People rode scooters on both the streets and sidewalks. The ones I observed on the sidewalk seemed to slow down as they encountered pedestrians. In general, I didn’t feel unsafe while sharing the sidewalk with scooter riders. However, at night, the scooter users seemed to be a bit less careful about watching their speed on the sidewalk, probably because fewer pedestrians were around.

While Austin hasn’t had scooters for very long, there’s no denying that they’ve caught on in certain areas of the city. According to data shared with the Austin Transportation Department from April 5 to Dec 31, 2019, the overwhelming share of rides started in Central Austin’s District 9, which includes downtown Austin and the UT Austin campaign. That jibes with what I saw during my visit. More than 1.7 million riders started in that district, over 76 percent of all the rides during that period. District 3 in East Austin was the second highest use area. It is clear that there’s a market for scooters, although so far it’s overwhelmingly in younger, wealthier parts of Austin.

Scooters haven’t come without controversies, as is to be expected. A new study conducted by the Public Health and Transportation departments in Austin, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a total of 271 people who suffered scooter-related injuries from September 5 through November 30, 2018. The research team determined that there were 20 individuals injured per 100,000 scooter trips during that three-month period.

Earlier this year, electric scooters also took center-stage at the South by Southwest conference, with some complaining about congestion and safety issues. Just this week, the Texas Senate passed a bill that would prohibit riding electric scooters on the sidewalks and would require that scooter users be at least 16 years old. The bill now moves to the House for consideration.

I think it’s important to consider ways to make scooters safer and to think about appropriate rules, particularly when they’re such a new technology. As Chicago gets ready to launch a four-month scooter pilot on June 15, I am open to seeing how scooters can serve our communities, particularly if they can replace car trips, and improve transportation access in communities located far from downtown and wealthier areas. Since the pilot focuses on the West and Northwest Side, including ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods with varying levels of CTA service and Divvy station coverage, it will be a good opportunity the gauge the potential of this new technology.

  • Felina Medina

    “I seldom saw scooters toppled over or obstructing foot traffic.”

    yes, you likely missed the scooters put in dumpsters, dumped in streams & lakes, and set on fire. You’ve also probably missed the smash-and-grab busted car windows and stories of people being robbed by criminals who flee on scooters (scooters are a GREAT way to commit petty crimes on-the-run)

    Watching the absolute clusterfux that has occurred in The Bay Area with those scooters – I wouldn’t wish that pedestrian-hell on ANY city with more than a million people…

    goooooood luck with that.

  • BlueFairlane

    My experience with the scooters in Austin on a Saturday afternoon and evening last September was a lot less pleasant, as I was almost creamed a couple of times by people I suspect were tourists who were tearing down the sidewalk. (One woman on the Congress Street took a tumble when I popped up a set of stairs into her illogically chosen path.) And people were leaving them lying around all over the place, especially as the night wore on.

    That same trip also took me to San Diego, where the sidewalks were more narrow and the scooter people were far more insane. I didn’t come away from that trip with a good feeling about the scooters.

  • Guy Ross

    Most (if not all?) scooters rentals are secured through an app which necessitates location services to be turned on. I would hope every crime be committed on a scooter so the cops could just to to their house and arrest them.

  • Jennifer Melfi

    I ride scooters in Detroit all of the time – I think it has been a really good experience for all. the only real issue I see is that the supply doesn’t always keep up with demand – More scooters!

  • Felina Medina

    that’s not how investigations tend to unfold, at least out here….

  • Random_Jerk

    When I visited Warsaw, Poland – entire city was littered with scooters, as bad as in the South Park episode. They were EVERYWHERE, totally out of control. As much i love idea of another form of car-less transportation I’m not sure about thousands of scooters laying around on sidewalks, parks, parking losts etc.

  • planetshwoop

    Lynda — Do you feel the high level of technology intervention mediates the level of access many people experience? (wonky sentence, sorry.) I am trying to say: given the large number of systems and institutions required to unlock a scooter, does it have a negative impact in under-served communities?

    I suspect most who offer these pilots (and tourists) have no issue with credit cards and banks to work these, but many in the pilot zone might not have that kind of access. Do you see the city addressing that?

    I’m not just talking about un-banked customers, but also those who may have reasons to fear interactions with the state. (My section of Albany Park does not yet have Divvy, but the Divvy rides I do see do not reflect who lives here. And so… will that get better or stay the same with scooters and dockless?)

  • Guy Ross

    Not quite sure what you’re referring to. I deep dive into the ‘scooter crime’ you claim is a big problem: Austin generates a story about a kid robbing a bank and then quickly being caught because he did, indeed, jump on a scooter.

    Makes me just a little doubtful about your other ‘concerns’.

  • Felina Medina

    “cool”

  • LegalBriefs

    Various companies have randomly dropped more than 25,000 dockless scooters here in San Diego, and they just keep coming. It is a nightmare, as riders dump them wherever they want when they are finished riding, usually lying them down on the sidewalks, with no regard for the disabled or elderly pedestrians. And unlike what the scooter companies suggest, the majority of the riders are tourists, underage children, and drunk college kids. Very few riders use the scooters as an alternative to their car; they use them as an alternative to WALKING.

    Aside from the falsehoods the scooter companies are feeding us all, our local doctors estimate between four and six SERIOUS scooter injuries per DAY (requiring hospitalization), and we had our second scooter death here in San Diego County on March 15th. Yet we STILL have no regulations, and the ones our mayor proposed that go into effect in July are ridiculous!

    An acquaintance of mine started his own YouTube page of scooter crashes taken from his balcony on the Mission Beach Boardwalk here in San Diego. Lots of “ouch” moments.

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsN9bHroXuxz8UaANU6Eb5A

    There are also already at least four personal injury cases filed against the City of San Diego for their mishandling of the scooter situation. Those settlements will undoubtedly come out of taxpayer pockets.

    Finally, Disability Rights California filed a class action lawsuit in January against the city of San Diego and three E-Scooter companies due to their inability to maintain sidewalk accessibility for the disabled.

    https://www.disabilityrightsca.org/cases/montoya-et-al-v-bird-rides-inc-et-al

    I truly hope things turn out better for you in Chicago than it has for us. If not, there will unfortunately be a lot of scooter injuries and accidents to write about in the coming months/years.

  • Bernard Finucane

    If scooters clutter the sidewalk, it’s probably because the sidewalk is too narrow. I can’t think of any American city where there are adequate sidewalks.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG