City Hall Hustle: Low-Speed Ahead!

Council finally comes around on a pilot program for electric cabs

With apologies to Drive: Think of a fraught course packed with hairpin curves, and quite honestly, the last vehicle you picture is an open-air, low-speed electric vehicle more akin to a golf cart than a Mini Cooper.

It's kinda hard to picture Ryan Gosling brooding prettily as he motors at 20 miles an hour down Congress Avenue.

But at City Hall, "the world's first low-speed vehicle chase," as put by one of its main participants, Chris Nielsen, may finally be drawing to a close, as City Council acted last week to approve a pilot program for the vehicles after a long, drawn-out, occasionally bitter clash over how to harness their utility.

Like one of the chief complaints against a certain arthouse action caper, this story was painfully slow to develop and doesn't feature nearly enough driving. It burst to the surface last spring when Nielsen contemplated an entry into the crowded field opposing incumbent Randi Shade for her Place 3 seat. His run seemed motivated by the bureaucratic hurdles he faced while trying to operate his company – formerly Capital Cruisers, now Electric Cab of Austin – legally on Downtown streets. Because LSEVs fall into the same semiregulated purgatory that once similarly plagued pedicabs, Nielsen has been arrested and had his vehicles impounded. With changes to the rules governing LSEVs having wound their way through the Urban Transportation Commission, they came to City Hall as that Place 3 race was heating up; when they were delayed by council in order to be considered alongside broader recommendations relating to taxis and pedicabs, allegations started flying that the move was retaliation for Nielsen's nascent challenge against Shade. (He apparently intended to run but didn't file his paperwork in time. And sure, while Nielsen's troubles are lamentable, the idea that regulating the types of vehicles that can operate on Downtown's teeming streets is some sort of "payback" is as silly as giving Christina Hendricks top-billing for 10 minutes of screen time.)

Thankfully, most of that rigamarole's been left in the rearview as the city feels its way forward on the role LSEVs can play Downtown. At its meeting last week, council approved a pilot program, continuing to Sept. 30, 2012, for operating LSEVs.

The program's a different beast than your normal taxi trip, calling for LSEVs to operate on fixed routes with fixed stops, traveling north-south and east-west Downtown. This seemingly solves the "anything goes" system that sometimes applies to pedicabs (how many times have you been backed up in Downtown traffic, only to see a full pedicab snake up what's not a lane next to you), and plays to LSEVs' strength over traditional taxis; while some cab drivers and organizations have fought LSEVs' entry into the marketplace, individual drivers certainly prefer longer fares to picking up a fare who's only going a few blocks.

For the city, the routes also partially fill another gap – that left by the withdrawal of Capital Metro's Downtown 'Dillos, free busses that traversed the core of Down­town. "A lot of people were disappointed when Capital Metro discontinued that," said council's resident transportation wonk, Chris Riley. "But there are reasons to think this service could well help fill the gap that's left by those. If it does work, there may well be other gaps in the transportation network that could be filled by services like this."

The routes were also grist for discussion from Mike Martinez, voicing his concern that the item initiating the pilot program – which LSEV companies, such as Electric Cab, must apply to be a part of – retain a certain flexibility. For instance, noting safety concerns prohibiting LSEVs on fast-moving corridors, he said: "We don't want these vehicles on the access road of I-35; I understand why .... But if there's any way we could figure out how to cross under I-35 and we could go to where there's another train stop and entertainment and restaurant area ... you all have that flexibility to contemplate that."

Additional flexibility was at the heart of another LSEV issue council faced that day. In addition to the pilot program, a separate item amending city code concerning what qualifies as a street-legal LSEV passed only on first reading, to be considered for second and third reading Oct. 20. Amusingly, the Transportation Department's 14-point assessment of what makes a safe LSEV doesn't apply to a single off-the-shelf model. Martinez suggested that this list undergo some revision; offering one example, he said, "If a vehicle is not made with disc brakes but there is an alternative [for] a safe braking system, I personally would like to see us have that flexibility to be able to make that decision."

So while there's still work to do regarding rules for the vehicles and the routes they will take, it looks like LSEVs will be hitting the streets legally soon – after one hell of a charged situation.

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