AUSTIN – The electric-scooter sensation is at a fever pitch, easing the daily commute of residents in cities across the nation, but also straining transportation infrastructures and sometimes relations between municipalities and the companies parking them seemingly at every corner.
“We live in a city where we’ve seen both the successes and the failures of launching new technology,” Austin Mayor Stephen Adler tells the Smart Mobility Summit hosted by Wards Intelligence at South by Southwest. “Ours is a city that had that dustup with some of the transportation network companies as they were launching, and it was hard to watch the national coverage of that describing Austin as a Luddite.”
The dustup was between the city and ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft, which pulled out of Austin in 2016 to protest regulations requiring fingerprints of its drivers. They would return a year later, after state lawmakers controversially intervened with regulations superseding the city’s authority and mollifying the ride-hailers’ demands.
By most accounts, Uber and Lyft again are thriving in the Texas state capital. Drivers say demand is so high that other drivers from nearby cities, such as San Antonio, drop in for the weekends and never miss festivals such as SXSW and Austin City Limits. But the local ride-hailers that stood in for Uber and Lyft during their absence now have seen their ridership plummet.
The controversy underscores the delicacy of relations between municipalities trying to safely satisfy the mobility needs of its residents and mobility providers looking to aggressively expand.
Austin arguably is a bit unique in its governance approach, partly because of a 2014 crash at SXSW that killed four people. The car’s driver, who was sentenced to life in prison, was fleeing police when he drove into a crowd. He was unconnected to ride hailing.
The city also has seen its population quadruple in the past four years, and expectations are for it to quadruple again over the next four.
“The regulatory scheme that worked at the turn of the last century was designed for challenges arising then, and that worked,” Adler says. “It does not work now. We need a different way. Government will always have responsibilities that operate outside of private markets. Cities cannot abdicate that responsibility.”
Adler says the city is trying to hammer out regulations for electric scooters, which provide commuters with a clean, last-mile mobility solution intended to alleviate traffic congestion. It could be argued they have accomplished the opposite, clogging sidewalks and compounding the city’s management of new transportation options.
“It is bumpy,” Adler says of the scooter negotiations. “But I think we are going to end up in a really good place.”
The mayor says one element of the talks with scooter providers, which include Spin and Bird, will be expanding them outside of downtown to make them a first-mile solution, as well. The regulations will be iterative, too, so the service can change alongside the city, its rapidly evolving infrastructure and the marketplace.
Carlos Cruz-Casas, assistant director-Department of Transportation and Public Works for Miami-Dade County, says his municipality also wants to regulate new mobility. He says Miami-Dade’s approach is to solve how to move residents around, rather than simply cars, and to recognize it does not have all the answers.
“We recognize there are many players and where we fall into the ecosystem,” he says of the county, which is as large as some states and a place where boundaries between cities are unclear. “Some municipalities want scooters, some do not.”
Data could be the answer.
Ben Bear, chief business officer-Spin, says the scooter company proactively shares data with local governments, which could help municipalities match bus schedules to rider routines. Uber and Lyft historically have been less forthcoming.
“But the cities have far more, (such as) where the scooters are going. That gives us incredibly interactive data, for example, where there may need to be a bike path and there is not one today,” he says. “It is exciting to see some standards starting to emerge, because from a company perspective if we have to set up hundreds of APIs for all the markets we operate in, it will be incredibly challenging.”
Cruz-Casas says Miami-Dade wants mobility-provider data, but more importantly it wants information.
“We don’t want all the data,” he says. “We’re not going to ask for everything you have.”
Ford receives data from cities as part of its City:One Challenge, which provides up $100,000 in funding from the automaker for locally derived transportation solutions that enhance the flexibility and access to mobility.
“We get a large amount of data analytics,” says Brett Wheatly, vice president-Mobility Marketing & Growth at Ford. “There is a lot of it, and it is in a lot of different places. We’ll take a look at it, talk to residents, run a few different scenarios and see how we can help the city.”
In Detroit, the automaker used city-harvested data to determine areas underserved by micro-transit, such as electric scooters.
“So, we said, ‘We’d like you guys to come in with scooters, but we need you here to get people to work.’ Data is a big piece of it.”
Another successful solution came from Miami-Dade, where a father picking up his toddler from school looked in the back seat before pulling away to find another child in the car in addition to his own. His idea is to geofence the school so educators send the correct child to the correct car.
Austin likely will need a homegrown solution to its evolving transportation mix, to which Adler also wants to add autonomous-vehicle testing and deployment.
“We want to be an early adopter of the technology,” the mayor says.
Integrating AVs with scooters buzzing through intersections and making abrupt turns and lane changes, as they visibly do in this downtown, certainly will be a challenge. In the year since the scooters first arrived, they have provided 2 million rides.
A Lyft driver named Doug is skeptical it can all come together.
“I don’t think I’ll come back down here tonight,” he says during a ride out of a downtown crowded with thousands of SXSW attendees, many of them bouncing helmetless between events on scooters. “Too many people, and you never know what they’ll do on those scooters. I just don’t want to be involved in an accident, whether I’m liable or not.”