What good is a limit on scooters?

Construction worker rides a Bird behind City Hall.

I’ve said that I think it’d be great if there were a scooter on every block of every street in Austin. I am entirely comfortable with the little things becoming a staple of the urban landscape, like fire hydrants. Or parked cars, for that matter.

The 500 unit limit (per company) is way too low. With only two-and-a-half scooter operators in town (GOAT is the half), 1,000-1,500 scooters aren’t enough for them to become a meaningful transportation option for a city of a million people spread out over 300 square miles. As long as there’s such a severe cap, the scooters will remain nothing more than a downtown amenity. Council Member Ora Houston’s hopes that they could become a viable option for her east side constituents will remain remain nothing more than hopes –– as long as there’s such a limited supply,  there’s no reason for the companies to deploy the vehicles outside of the most densely populated area of town.

Many-an-urbanist have contrasted the handwringing over a few hundred dockless scooters with our indifference to the million or so carbon-spewing dockless automobiles that kill 100 Austinites a year. It’s certainly a point I’m sympathetic to, but it might not be the best argument to make to Council, since even our allegedly Marxist elected officials see a key distinction between private property and things that are simply up for grabs in the public domain (Yes, I know the scooters are actually privately-owned too, but bear with me). One is a sacred right that cannot be evaluated or questioned, while the other is always up for a cost-benefit analysis.

Instead, the better comparison is between scooters and taxis. I wasn’t in Austin in the pre-Uber days, but from what I’ve heard, it was godawful trying to get a cab on a weekend night due to the severe shortage of taxis that was mandated by the city. Why repeat the same mistake with scooters?

In Santa Monica, Calif., Bird’s birthplace, there are already apparently “between 1,000 and 2,000” Birds in operation. That’s in a city of 89,000 people and 8.42 square miles. The city government there is considering a regulation that seems much more reasonable:

The pilot program also would require the scooter companies to carry insurance; would cap the number of rental scooters in the city at 1,500 initially, with the option to increase to 2,250 later; and would allow for three scooter rental companies to operate in the city.


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