Scooters are everywhere. Every day, people who live and work in downtown Austin use scooters to get from one meeting to the next, grab lunch, or meet with friends after work. Others are less concerned about riding them as much as they are avoiding getting hit by them, stepping over them, and shaking their heads in frustration when they see a giant pile of them strewn on some sidewalk.
But it wasn’t always that way. Before the spring of 2018, these upright electric scooters were in only a few cities on the west coast. But several scooter companies wanted to reach the Austin market in time for its South by Southwest Festival in March 2018. The City thus gave “city-wide dockless transportation” licenses to those companies under Chapter 14-9, Article 3 of the City Code. With licenses in hand, companies like Bird and Lime dropped hundreds of scooters (each was limited to 500) on high-density street corners.
The scooters were an explosive success. Their use became so pervasive that just two months after SXSW, the City adopted an Emergency Rule setting forth basic rules by which licensed dockless mobility technology was governed. The Rule was set to expire after four months to give the City some time to work out a longer-term solution.
Since then, the City has adopted several new rules and regulations governing what it now calls “micromobility.” And there are State laws governing scooter use too. What’s more, there are signs showing that we should expect to see even tighter regulations at a higher level in the future. The bottom line is that scooters are subject to a multilayered web of laws and regulations. Scooter companies—both current and future—should take note.
Austin has a webpage devoted to “Micromobility” laying out the bottom-line rules of the road. The page even includes “etiquette flyers” with helpful diagrams and an “E-Scooter Riding Tips” video.
There are currently seven micromobility service operators licensed by the City to operate in the “downtown Austin project coordination zone”: Bird, JUMP, Lime, Lyft, OjO, Spin, and VeoRide. Operators can seek supplemental licenses allowing them to place additional scooters in areas outside of the downtown zone. Today there are over 15,000 scooters operating in Austin.
Current and future micromobility companies must apply to the Austin Transportation Department in order to operate for six months at a time. However, the Department has paused issuance of new licenses to micromobility operators while it assesses the current level of demand for scooters; Austin may have reached scooter capacity.
Chapters 12-1 and 12-2 of the City Code—amended by this City Ordinance in 2019—governs “Micro-Mobility Devices.” The Code sets forth basic rules for riding a scooter: riders must yield to pedestrians, can’t ride on certain higher-speed roads, can only ride one person at a time, must park scooters without blocking sidewalks, must wear helmets if under the age of 18, can’t park them on private property, etc. And the Austin Police Department is empowered to ticket scooter riders for certain violations.
Scooter parking is probably one of the most annoying side effects of scooters’ ubiquity. Pedestrians find them a nuisance, local law enforcement and medical professionals a danger, and business owners a blight on their storefronts. In response, the City has sometimes impounded the scooters and required the scooter companies themselves to pay the fine to release them. See, for example, here, here, and here.
Cities like Austin have imposed their own restrictions on scooters. The State, too, has a few simple laws that apply to “electric personal assistive mobility device.” Tex. Transp. Code §§ 551.201–551.203.
But many state lawmakers and their constituents think that’s not enough. During the 86th Legislative Session this past spring, the Senate passed S.B. 549, which aimed to ban scooters on sidewalks, require users to be at least 16 years old, bar more than one rider per scooter at a time, impose strict parking requirements, and explicitly enable political subdivisions to impose even more rigorous standards.
S.B. 549 passed the Senate 22 to 11, but, once in the House, stalled in the Transportation Committee, missed a key deadline, and thus never made it to the floor for a vote.
That doesn’t mean the State is done attempting to regulate scooters. This summer, Governor Abbott tweeted in reply to a video of a scooter rider on I-35 in Dallas: “That does it. I believe in less government. But allowing these scooters on crowded interstate highways is bad government and endangers public safety. Action is needed. #TXLEGE.” Given the scooter bill’s success in the Senate last session and the Governor’s recent call for action, it’s very likely another scooter bill will be considered in 2021.
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The legal and regulatory environment for scooters is new, multilayered, and somewhat uncharted. But Cobb & Counsel attorneys are comfortable navigating these complexities.