Council Gives Green Light to Convention Center, Scooter Riders

May 23 meeting tackles "Downtown puzzle," "micro-mobility"

City Council wrapped up what Mayor Steve Adler called a “pretty hard and big May” yesterday (May 23) with unanimous votes on the major items of the day: a plan to expand the Convention Center while preserving nearby Palm School, and new regulations on “micro-mobility devices” – such as electric scooters.

This is what happens to scooters that don't follow the rules. (Photo by John Anderson)

Those votes followed a lengthy executive session and Council working up a bevy of amendments to Council Member Kathie Tovo’s already lengthy resolution regarding the southeast quadrant of downtown, home to the Convention Center and other projects. These included asking CIty Manager Spencer Cronk to include service providers for those experiencing homelessness to the list of stakeholders crafting the plan (Tovo), and setting a deadline of Aug. 1 for plan delivery, in time for the fiscal 2020 budget (CM Ann Kitchen).

An amendment from CM Greg Casar directed staff to analyze funding for potential infrastructure projects in the Rainey Street district that would support Convention Center expansion, and which parts of the city (such as Casar’s north-central District 4) would lose out on those funds for their own projects. Another Casar amendment ask for recommendations to “create more formalized representation of the interests of employees” at the Convention Center and its adjoining hotel (now a Hilton), which is owned by the city.

Toward the end of the discussion, CM Natasha Harper-Madison highlighted the potential of the Convention Center reboot, along with work on Palm School, Rainey Street, Waller Creek, and the new Downtown MetroRail station, to “reconnect the downtown grid.” This latest iteration of Adler’s ”Downtown puzzle” is also crafted to provide additional revenues – through a tourism-based public improvement district a la the Downtown Austin Alliance – that could support the arts and city homeless initiatives.

Later in the afternoon, Council jumped around among three draft ordinances to regulate micro-mobility, which mostly means our ubiquitous dockless electric scooters, but also includes dockless bikes, e-bikes, and future technological developments in the space. One of these ordinances, finalizing the actual rules of riding, was adopted unanimously and establishes that riders are able to use sidewalks anywhere in town, without the “dismount zones” included in previous proposals (and enforced, at least in theory, during South by Southwest).

Additional rules include: a ban on using electronic devices while riding (hands-free use is ok); penalties for parents who allow children to ride without helmets; prohibition on more than one rider at a time; and requirements that scooters not be parked in the public right of way. Violations of the rules will be Class C misdemeanors with a $20 fine on the first infraction, $40 thereafter.

Also gone from previous iterations of the rules are speed limits (which the Texas Legislature also considered this session). Instead, riders should scoot in a “reasonable and prudent manner.” That ambiguous phrase caused some concern on the dais, as it leaves discretion to individual police officers as to whether a rider is being reckless enough to warrant a citation. To help promote the new rules, Kitchen called for an educational effort, similar to the city’s recent “Don’t Block the Box” campaign, and for issuing warnings rather than citations to first-time offenders.

Another sticking point on the dais involved rules, or the lack of them, for scooter usage in parks and on trails. A Parks and Recreation Department pilot project allows scooters on some trails and is expected to wrap up in September, with PARD moving forward with proposed rules thereafter. At the meeting, CM Leslie Pool asked Cronk to explore the use of geofencing to limit scooter use in parks, as has been done on the UT campus. Pool also asked Cronk to analyze the feasibility of requiring scooter operators to include “unique identifiers” on each device, which could make it easier for law enforcement – or just regular citizens – to call out riders using the devices dangerously.

The other two scooter ordinances, governing the city’s relationship with micro-mobility providers (e.g., Bird, Lime), were postponed unanimously (with CM Alison Alter off the dais. Those items would have instituted a franchise model akin to that used currently with taxi companies, which CM Jimmy Flannigan feared could stifle innovation (as the providers claim).

A potential problem, Flannigan pointed out, was that if Council had to approve all new micro-mobility operators (as they do now with taxis; scooters et al. get permits directly from the Austin Transportation Department), existing companies in the market could “wage political campaigns” to sway Council votes. Why would we think transportation “disruptors” would do a thing like that? It’s not clear what the city would do instead, but ATD and city legal staff get to figure it out before an Aug. 8 deadline.

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Austin City Council, Austin Convention Center, Convention Center, Palm School, Palm District, Waller Creek, Kathie Tovo, Greg Casar, Steve Adler, Ann Kitchen, Natasha Harper-Madison, Leslie Pool, Jimmy Flannigan, homelessness, scooters, micro-mobility, dockless mobility

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