In defense of those damn dockless devices

Man on Scooter

I recently ran for and was elected as an alternate member of the Austin Pedestrian Advisory Council, a volunteer group that makes recommendations to the municipal government regarding pedestrian issues, like sidewalks, mobility access, public transportation, and, of course, walking safety in the city. We meet at City Hall once a week and discuss a publicly-posted agenda that members of the community are invited to comment on, either during meetings or via email.

Last night’s meeting included a discussion of the city’s proposed rules on dockless mobility, aka the rules the DOT is hoping to impose on companies like Lime, Bird, and Uber for the regulation of those electric scooters that have taken over Austin and other tech-forward U.S. cities. The City passed an emergency ruling last spring to allow the companies to operate on a provisional basis.

We had already held a subcommittee meeting on the rules, and the discussion last night was really supposed to be a quick edit of the recommendations we had already agreed to make to the City regarding what the proposed rules were missing from a pedestrian point of view.

Because our meetings are open to the public, the public showed up specifically to complain about the scooters and what a menace they are. No fewer than three downtown dwellers interrupted our discussion to regale us with stories of people on the scooters mowing down pedestrians and dogs, or injuring themselves by falling off the scooters, or riding with babies on their backs, or of police officers refusing to do anything about the above transgressions. We even got an email mid-meeting with a list of complaints about the scooters and what a menace they are to our well being as a society.

While our council is merely an advisory one, and we don’t really have much say over legal matters or rules except to advise the City, and furthermore, the rules are proposed to govern the companies that own and operate the dockless mobility devices, and not the individuals riding them, we nevertheless listened to and validated the complaints.

The big takeaway: The good people of Austin hate these dockless electronic mobility devices, aka scooters. Like, a lot. They are a scourge on our fine city. They are murdering children and stealing our land, or something equally vile.

I have had a similar reaction to these scooters, mostly after being startled by a guy (usually a white, young, rich-looking, oblivious male) coming up way too fast behind me and my dog on a walk through our downtown neighborhood, without so much as a “pardon me”; or when I’ve come across a scooter parked willy-nilly across the sidewalk, waiting for a child to trip over it or to force a person in a wheelchair to find a new way around the hazard; or watching a group of scooter riders doing horribly unsafe maneuvers on sidewalks or in traffic, disobeying basic laws and causing chaos.

But I’ve noticed one thing: the people who are on the scooters are inevitably smiling and having a wonderful time. And I’ve been wondering if I would have a different view of the scooters if I used them myself.

It appears they’re pretty popular devices in spite of all the hand-wringing and hate-spewing of our citizenry. They’re also helpful by providing a way for people to get around without adding to the motor vehicle traffic problem we already have. The bottom line is that the scooters provide non-car, lower-carbon-footprint mobility for people — and that’s good for cities.

So I’ve decided to do a deep dive in defense of those damned dockless devices.

Complaint #1: They Wreak Havoc When Parked on Sidewalks

The scooters are a hazard to pedestrians on sidewalks. When they’re parked in the middle of a sidewalk, they pose a tripping hazard or impede mobility impaired individuals from accessing the thoroughfare.

Response #1: They’re Gone More Quickly Than We Realize

Users are instructed on proper parking, and if they don’t park properly, the company that owns the scooter is required to fix the problem. You can call 311 or use the app to report a scooter’s improper parking position, and the company is required to come and pick it up within two hours or fewer.

But in reality, a parked scooter is never parked for long; someone will probably come by and use it.

Plus, improperly parked cars or construction equipment are far more numerous and dangerous to pedestrians than these scooters; we just fail to notice them because we’re used to them.

Complaint #2: Scooters are Dangerous

People using the scooters usually ride them too fast down crowded sidewalks, endangering people who are moving at slower speeds. At the same time, when they are in the street, they can’t travel as quickly as cars, which causes confusion and consternation among those giant metal beasts and their drivers. What’s worse, these scooter-riding demons never wear helmets, and sometimes they commit fraud by unlocking the scooters for minors or children to ride, which is extremely dangerous. Sometimes they even ride two to a scooter!

Response #2: So are Cars and Bikes

Scooter users are required to yield to pedestrians and to follow the same traffic laws that cars and bikes are supposed to. Scooters just happen to be more accessible than bicycles, and also easier to use since they’re motorized, so more people who have never used a bike before are riding scooters.

They’re also typically out-of-town tourists, so they may not know the traffic patterns of crowded streets and sidewalks. They’ll learn as time goes on, but they’re going to be making a lot of mistakes right now. Also, the City’s new rules will require the companies to more thoroughly educate users.

For the record, bikes and scooters have the same right to the street as cars, and the cars need to learn to be patient and go around.

Complaint #3: Police Don’t Arrest (or Even Ticket) These Mad Scootin’ Perpetrators

No one is enforcing any of the rules for the scooters, such as yielding to pedestrians, walking scooters on sidewalks (as bikes are supposed to), staying to the right in lanes of motor vehicle traffic, or any of the safety rules. They are basically getting away with murder!

 Response #3: Police Don’t Arrest (or Even Ticket) Most Traffic Violators

Austin is particularly bad for traffic enforcement, partially because our roadways are clogged and overridden and if the police did enforce the laws of the land, they’d be writing ticket after ticket with no end in sight.

What’s more, there aren’t specific laws governing the behavior of these scooters and their riders (yet) — even the rules the City is drafting only pertain to the companies that own the scooters, and not their riders. So technically, the police really can’t do anything.

What Can We Do About the Scooters?

As citizens, there is plenty we can do to make scooters more palatable and safe for everyone.

My recommendations include:

  • Report improperly parked, overturned, or non-functioning scooters to 311 as often as you can. This will not only force the companies to correct the problems; it will also give the City data on how often these violations are occurring.
  • Speak out and let scooter riders know when they’re breaking laws, being discourteous, or putting others in danger. Most riders just don’t know they’re allowed to be on the street or that their speed is endangering others, and tend to comply quickly. The others are just jerks and hopefully will get weeded out of society in some other way.
  • Get used to scooters being the norm — they’re actually pretty great, all things considered. In fact, you should probably try riding one yourself so you can see why all those scooter riders have such huge grins plastered to their faces, even as they’re terrorizing we mere mortals using our legs to propel us forward.

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