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A cyclone of scooters has descended on Austin for SXSW, for better or worse

An influx of e-bikes and scooters has dramatically changed how festival goers get around

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Last Saturday night, for the first time in my four years of attending SXSW, I thought I was going to die. I crossed the road at the pedestrian crosswalk next to the Austin Convention Center, and four people — each traveling approximately 15 miles per hour on electric scooters — darted around me.

Not only did I not see or hear them coming — the mostly silent scooters have lights that automatically activate at night, but they can still be hard to spot in the dark — but I also had no idea what the best course of action was. I simply froze in place, standing in the middle of the street as the scooter riders whizzed by, having the time of their lives. Would I have died if struck? Probably not, and a motor vehicle in the same situation would have been a much graver threat. But in that moment, I felt genuine fear. My heart rate spiked, and for moments afterward, I felt shaken up and on high alert, wary of the countless other scooter riders that could be one mistake away from sending me to the emergency room.

This situation likely sounds familiar to any of the hundreds of thousands of festival attendees at this year’s SXSW, the annual tech, music, film, and marketing meetup. The scooters, nonexistent at last year’s festival, are everywhere in Austin this week, with thousands of vehicles concentrated in the roughly 1.5-square-mile area stretching from the Texas Capitol to the intersecting Colorado River. The result is attendees operating them at high speeds both through dense crowds on the sidewalk and among busy automobile street traffic. No one is wearing a helmet. And messy heaps of scooters are scattered across Austin’s sidewalks and public spaces.

Some of the astounding sights I’ve seen in the past few days include multiple vicious-looking wipeouts, a man cranking the accelerator and doing donuts in a crowded parking lot, and scooters littering the gutters of East 6th Street while throngs of people avoid tripping over them. At one point, I read that a man was found riding one down the shoulder of an Austin highway. Riders here are disregarding all manner of street signage and traffic lights; some people flagrantly speed the wrong way down streets.

Multiple police checkpoints litter the edges of off-limits areas — Austin has made certain that popular blocks, like downtown’s Rainey Street, are no-scooter zones — so officers can herd hundreds of scooters into makeshift parking lots. And yet, I’ve never seen so many people so thoroughly enjoying themselves as they maneuver from panels to parties, bars, and restaurants. Perhaps the recklessness is part of the fun, but even a cursory Twitter search turns up innumerable scooter evangelists who’ve been converted by their time in Austin.

Scooters have been messy from the jump. Bird first dumped its scooter fleet into the Santa Monica area of Los Angeles in fall 2017. Since then, municipal governments and the general public have been dealing with the injury risks, urban cultural effects, and makeshift regulatory environment surrounding the scooter movement, which has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry.

The SXSW scooter situation is a fitting experiment that shows us what cities may look like in five years

The scooters first arrived in Austin last April when the city declared itself a hub for experimentation with “micromobility,” a buzzwordy euphemism for rentable bikes and scooters designed to take you short distances. In the ensuing 11 months, Bird, Lime, Uber-owned Jump, Lyft, and Spin, among other smaller ventures, have happily moved in.

Here in Austin during SXSW, the large-scale scooter deployment is thanks to the city’s 10 licensed operators, each with permits that allow 500 vehicles in downtown Austin. The result is a fascinating test case in how the micromobility trend fares in an extremely dense, highly populated area with unfettered access to electric vehicles at all times.

Over the years, SXSW has shifted its tech focus away from mobile apps to far-future subjects like AI, self-driving cars, and cryptocurrencies. Its significance as a gathering of celebrities, executives, and industry experts has waned since the days when it helped kickstart Twitter; now, it mostly exists as a place for brands to self-promote and employees to party every night and gorge on tacos. But it’s still a destination for, at the very least, finding out what the biggest people in media, tech, and Hollywood think might be The Next Big Thing, even if that thing is inevitably a failure.  

Now, the scooter explosion feels like the most talked-about development the show has seen since live-streaming app Meerkat broke onto the scene here in 2015. For a festival that bills itself as a peek into the future, the scooter frenzy is a remarkably fitting experiment that shows us what cities might look like five or 10 years from now. The answer so far: equal parts urban transit nightmare and genuinely transformative social change.

Last year’s SXSW brought an influx of more than 430,000 people to Austin, with a vast majority of people concentrated in the downtown area near the city’s convention center. Although Austin suspended licensing for adding new dockless electric vehicles to the mix back in January, while it reassesses its current contracts, that’s still left more than 17,500 licensed electric vehicles on city streets. Most of the scooter companies appear to have moved a majority of their fleets to downtown to capitalize on the opportunity.

With that many available, it’s no wonder that attendees seem to love the scooters. (They wouldn’t be a controversial subject if they sat unused, after all.) The process of getting around downtown for panels and attending events and parties used to be a slog from a series of hotels to the convention center and back, resulting in some turbulent history in recent years around regulating Uber and Lyft. Now, thanks to the scooters, it’s a brief and often enjoyable ride that saves you time and can cost as little as 50 cents.

Bird, Lime, and Uber are allowing Austin residents to use the vehicles free of charge to start, with a cost of just 15 cents per minute after that. In other markets, the companies tend to charge a flat fee of either $1 or sometimes $2.50, depending on whether you’re using a scooter or a bike. What that says about the sustainability of companies like Bird and Lime is not immediately clear. After charging and maintenance costs, as well as the money spent fishing scooters out of lakes and freeing them from impound lots, most scooter companies are left with a small fraction of each ride, while some actually lose money. Regardless, both Bird and Lime have earned valuations of around $2 billion each.

Fun and cheap as they may be, scooters come with serious risks. Traveling at that speed, a scooter rider may seriously injure themselves or a pedestrian, and using one in traffic without a bike lane to protect you, as the law requires, means you may be mowed down by an automobile. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even launched the first study of electric scooter accidents at the request of Austin’s Public Health and Transportation departments. Speaking with local publication Hilltop Views last week, an emergency room nurse at the city’s St. David’s Medical Center said that the institution admits around 50 people per week with electric scooter injuries.

Scooters are so easy and cheap that the public is embracing them, despite the risks

Meanwhile, cities are now grappling with large-scale scooter deployments that drastically affect sidewalks, public spaces, and roads. That’s all while the existence of low-cost, venture capital-funded scooters make it much less likely that public transportation like rail and bus networks receive the necessary funding and support required to improve — or even function.

The scooter companies appear to be trying to make amends for their irresponsible beginnings. Uber-owned Jump is giving out helmets to any SXSW attendee who requests one, although I have yet to see a helmet rack. Jump also requires you to now take a photo of your scooter after you park it to ensure you’re not leaving it somewhere especially egregious, although that seems to be doing little to curb bad behavior.

“To prepare for the increase in demand, we have ramped up our team on the ground who are available 24/7 to move any incorrectly parked scooters or bikes to the designated parking areas,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement given to The Verge. “We are also in regular communication with the city and will continue to work with them to help quickly address any issues.” The company says it has a ground team dealing with the helmet issue as well as “providing resources to encourage riders to follow the rules of the road,” although that seems unsuccessful.

Lyft, to its credit, says it’s built the first on-the-ground scooter parking stations in Austin specifically to help “calm the chaos” of SXSw, a spokesperson told The Verge. The company also launched what it calls a “scootiquette” program to educate riders on best practices and how to follow the law. The program even comes with a flashy, illustration-heavy infographic designed to inform people about permitted and prohibited scooter use.

Scooter companies are experimenting with parking stations and financial incentivizes

Bird declined to comment specifically on SXSW, but it did point The Verge to Austin’s John-Michael V. Cortez, special assistant to the mayor, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Prior to the event, Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar said, “I’m not really worried about it,” when speaking about the scooter situation at SXSW last week with local NBC affiliate KXAN-TV. ”When I talk to my peers in other cities, they are just mesmerized with our very positive experience with this new, shared mobility technologies here in Austin,” Spillar added. “We’ve done way over a million rides here in Austin since we introduced them, and that’s just huge — that is people not in cars traveling.”

Additionally, Bird says it developed a battle plan for SXSW that was improved over time thanks to past experiments during the Austin City Limits Music Festival and in Atlanta during the Super Bowl. That involves partnering with hotels to create more ample sidewalk parking, working with the city to enforce the no-ride zones, and deploying a ground team to operate 24 hours a day to ensure that as little goes wrong as possible.

Similarly, Lime says it’s using in-app notifications and guides to help riders use the scooters safely, and it’s working with the city of Austin to issue fines for parking or riding in no-scooter zones. Lime is also incentivizing riders to park in designated areas by giving away discounts. Neither Bird nor Lime, however, would comment on the sidewalk clutter or rule-breaking that seems rampant this week at SXSW, with both companies reiterating that use in-app reminders and other methods of communication to ensure riders follow the rules and, if all else fails, defer to local police.

While there’s only been one panel that’s explicitly designed around scooters, much of the substantive discussion here at SXSW feels relevantly centered on policy — in particular, policy that may rein in tech platforms. “Moving fast and breaking things,” Facebook’s infamous early motto, is decidedly out of style.

That means that part of the blowback from scooter companies has to do with how they cribbed, in part, from the playbook of Facebook and more prominently from the playbook of Uber and Lyft, by dumping electric vehicles into city streets without permission. At one Oakland meeting about scooters, the companies blamed parents for children riding the scooters — even though no effort had been made to educate parents about whether children should use them before the vehicles were scattered all over the sidewalks.

Moving from a web service or software product into the real world comes with a higher level of scrutiny. Bird and Lime are in the process of establishing better relationships with cities around the globe. In doing so, we might see improvements to safety, urban clutter, and the other issues that make scooters so polarizing that people toss them into lakes. Yet at SXSW, the snapshot of the future we’re getting is one more prone to chaos than order — at least until a more peaceful equilibrium is reached between cities and scooter companies.

Unlike a mobile app, the stakes with electric vehicles are life and death. If Austin this week is any indication of what’s to come, scooters will inevitably arrive everywhere in short order, and the public will love them just enough to ignore the consequences. We just need to be prepared for what comes next.

Update 3/11, 3:30PM ET: Added additionally information from Lyft about its scooter parking stations in Austin and a new education program around scooter etiquette.

Photography by Nick Statt / The Verge