University of Texas students and other Austin citizens now zip through the city’s urban core on electric scooters, thanks to Bird and LimeBike. The companies debuted their dockless electric scooters earlier this month, but unfortunately, some Austin citizens expressed concerns that the scooters endanger others. Scooters irresponsibly left on sidewalks or other public spaces not only create a public safety issue but also threaten disabled people’s access to public and private buildings.
Though legislation is being expedited through the city’s Mobility Committee to fix the issue in Austin, access for disabled individuals must be highly regarded in the legislation’s purpose.
Current right-of-way laws in the city do not dictate how and where dockless scooters can be left in public spaces, allowing riders to leave them where they please. A city council ordinance intends to resolve the issue by preventing riders from leaving their scooter on a “street, alley, or sidewalk.” This does not yet specifically include restrictions on obstructing public and private handicap-accessible entrances or ramps, putting a burden on those who use mobility devices.
Jason JonMichael, assistant director of the Austin Transportation Department, expressed his concerns about how scooters are already impeding access at an April 17 Mobility Committee meeting. Citing examples in D.C., JonMichael said, “One particular instance occluded the ADA ramp as well as occluded the access to the ADA handrail, which means not only wheelchair bound citizens, but walking ADA citizens like myself would also not be able to use that handrail.”
The inability of the companies to promptly collect their scooters — especially when they may be irresponsibly abandoned in the way of handicap ramps or entrances — poses unjust burdens on people in wheelchairs throughout the city. Austin has already impounded at least 55 scooters that obstructed sidewalks or roads for more than 48 hours. If proper laws are not passed quickly to prevent the obstruction of ramps or entrances, disabled people may be denied access. We can not allow even one disabled person to be denied.
The concerns of people like JonMichael will not be resolved with the ordinance in its current form, as there are no specific provisions penalizing those whose abandoned scooters block public and private ramps or accessible entrances. The Mobility Committee must emphasize the importance of ADA access in the next draft of the code by creating stringent provisions that clearly prevent people from leaving any dockless vehicles in disabled people’s way.
Penalties for violations should reflect existing laws about objects obstructing access. For example, when someone without a handicap parking permit parks in a handicap space, they receive a substantial fine. A similar financial penalty on a rider who leaves a dockless vehicle in the way of ADA access would likewise prevent people from doing so. Riders can be held responsible through the riding data the city plans to collect from the companies.
There is a way for people to enjoy the convenience of these scooters, but it cannot be at the expense of disabled individuals. As Austin adapts its laws to a new era of ride sharing, it must uphold disabled people’s right to access.
Kosinski is a journalism freshman from San Rafael, California. Follow him on Twitter @willkosinski.