Austin began its pilot program allowing dockless bikes and scooters in May, 2018. Despite the limits placed on deployment during this period, the pilot has powerfully demonstrated the potential of tiny vehicles to give Austinites greater mobility, augment the reach of the Capital Metro transit system by solving “last mile” problems, and take a giant leap toward achieving Austin’s Big Jump goals. If Austin is to be as innovative, progressive, and forward-thinking as our reputation and own self-image, we must “go big” on this innovative new low-carbon, low-cost, zero-pollution mobility option. There are two major fixes to the pilot program necessary for it to achieve its full potential as a learning tool:
Eliminate August 1 “lock-to” requirement
One major self-imposed obstacle looms as a barrier to continued pilot success: the August 1 deadline for dockless vehicle companies to add locks capable of being tied to a bike rack. This rule would have severe negative consequences for the pilot program:
- Many companies would not be able to continue to operate because they lack vehicles with this particular locking technology.
- Due to Austin’s low number of fixed bike racks, if all dockless vehicles made use of these, there would not be enough room on racks for all of dockless vehicles, let alone room for private bicycles.
- Dockless users prompted to use a lock may lock vehicles to things other than bike racks.
Chicago, one of the only other cities to impose a “lock-to” requirement in its dockless pilot, has recently reversed its decision, allowing dockless vehicles to continue without lock-to requirements.
The small percentage of poorly parked dockless vehicles are a real issue but this is not the solution. The solution that two of the dockless companies have implemented — requiring users to take pictures of their parked vehicle at the end of the ride — has already impressively cut back on poorly parked vehicles. Similar efforts at user nudges may be possible while retaining the core notion of dockless vehicles.
Reform and Expand Vehicle Caps
The initial cap of five hundred permitted vehicles in the DAPCZ has allowed the city and its residents to get familiar with this mode of vehicles. This experience has shown that these vehicles are a major benefit to Austinites, but five hundred vehicles is not nearly enough for dockless vehicles to be a reliable mode of transportation. At the present level, many pollution-free, low-carbon dockless trips go untaken because the nearest dockless vehicle is too far away to be useful. Individuals hoping to rely on this as a true mode of transportation have found that the pilot rules result in spotty and uneven dockless availability.
- Raise or eliminate the limit. 500 vehicles was an arbitrary starting point. Now that we have learned more as a city, it is time to update the rules.
- Change cap from permitted vehicles to simultaneously deployed vehicles. Originally, the rules were conceived for dockless bikes. A much greater percentage of a dockless bike fleet tend to be deployed at once than a dockless scooter fleet, which need to be recharged. As a result, electric vehicles become less and less available through the day, as vehicle batteries wear down. Allowing permits to be easily transferred to new vehicles would encourage dockless operators to remove non-functioning vehicles and replace them with functioning ones.
- Apply separate to each vehicle mode For those companies with multiple vehicle modes, this would allow experimenting with different modes, giving more information to Austin about the potential needs different vehicle types create.
- Rethink rules outside the DAPCZ Two months into the start of the dockless pilot, ATD has yet to issue incremental permits for vehicles outside the DAPCZ. This represents a great loss to all Austinites who live, work, or spend time outside the DAPCZ. When zero companies have received permits, it is time to evaluate whether part of the permitting process is too onerous. The point of the pilot is to learn about this exciting mobility option, not to restrict.
Reorient Austin toward the Big Jump
Transportation innovations are announced all the time but opportunities like dockless vehicles — adopted spontaneously by users, without need for cumbersome education campaigns, are few and far between. When an innovation perfectly aligns with our city’s vision for reducing our city’s expensive and polluting addiction to single-occupancy automobile transportation, we must take advantage.
In light of these new developments, it is time to redouble every step that the city was already taking toward making the city a more bicycle-friendly place — from bike racks to bike lanes to two-way streets to traffic calming. We have been presented with a golden opportunity and now is the time to seize it!
Contact: Dan Keshet