Every year at SXSW Music, a clear-cut theme arises. Last year, it was overly diligent fire marshals taking precise headcounts at venues throughout Austin and limiting show capacities. An employee of The Sidewinder Bar told us then that it was part of an insidious plot to close down venues to make room for new condo developments in Austin. The Sidewinder has since shuttered, so you do the math.
But I digress, ‘cause this year, it’s these fucking scooters, man. They’re absolutely everywhere. And you don’t need so much as helmet to rent one, just an app! What a time to be alive … but for how long? Accidents have been frequent—I saw two myself yesterday, as revelers zipped through downtown Austin at 14.8 mph, high on life, or beer (god forbid). Earlier this year, a man on a scooter in Austin was killed in a collision with a car. This is no joke.
And herein lies the problem: While a conference at its core, SXSW is a music festival and where thar be festivals, thar be booze. There are no checks and balances to ensure that scooter riders are lucid enough to operate the small vehicles along the same roads as cars, or the same sidewalks (yes, they ride on the sidewalks) as pedestrians.
Parking the scooters is a mindless task. You can pretty much leave them anywhere, which feels like nothing short of tech-litter, a reminder of the “use it and move on” mentality of the sharing economy. And let’s not even get started on what this means for disabled access. Furthermore, there’s no class to teach you how to ride a scooter and there’s definitely not any training for automobile drivers encountering them on the same roads.
“I just saw another scooter accident today,” Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew said to the crowd on stage at the Mohawk. “That makes three in 48 hours. I’m really not sure about that one … Don’t ride scooters. I know they look amazing and you want to relive your youth. But they don’t give you helmets and cars don’t understand them.”
Companies like Lime, Bird and Uber have all deployed their scooters on the streets of downtown Austin and it’s a bit chaotic. Sure, it makes getting around from one showcase to another quicker in theory, but the program seems to be rather unregulated. San Francisco experienced a similar rollout of these things last year, where NBC Bay Area said that, “One day in March, they just showed up.” Now, two companies were granted permission to participate in a one-year pilot program and the scooters aren’t just left laying on the sidewalk anymore.
Perhaps Austin has a future pilot program in store, as well, but it’s certainly not happening during SXSW 2019. And look, a bunch of scooters laying around the streets just looks like shit. Not to mention that they’re ~$2 per ride cost could perhaps spell the demise of SXSW’s iconic, charming and locally operated pedicabs. This is a free-for-all and we’ll keep crossing our fingers that nobody else gets hurt. Kevin Drew said it best: “Be safe out there. We love you.”