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What’s the trendiest way to get around Austin? An electric scooter

Pam LeBlanc

A California-based company hopes to deploy a fleet of electric scooters on Austin streets this spring.

Officials with LimeBike, a California-based company that has placed dockless bike sharing systems in cities across the company, showed off seven of the nimble, quiet machines here during the first few days of South by Southwest.

It also demonstrated them at the Civic I/O, a summit meeting between mayors from around the country and entrepreneurs unveiling new technologies. They even brought one of the scooters by the Austin American-Statesman, so I could hop on one for a couple of laps around the parking lot.

RELATED: Austin council approves dockless bike pilot, with a time limit

First impression? Easy to use. Second? Fun. But I worry a little about the little vehicles, which have a top speed capped at 14.8 miles per hour and look just like those Razor scooters that kids ride around the neighborhood. How would they hold up in traffic, and would people try to ride them (illegally) on crowded downtown sidewalks?

Plus, there’s that whole issue of operating a dockless vehicle system in the city, what happens when people park them in inconvenient locations and if companies like LimeBike should pay a fee to use public property to operate their business.

First, some background.

RELATED: Austin explores new rideshare territory: dockless bikes

Austin already has a traditional bike share system, called B-cycle Austin, with dozens of stations around the city. Customers can check out a bike from a B-cycle station, use it to ride to another station, and check it in, for a small fee.

Dockless bike share systems like LimeBike work in a similar way, but no stations are needed. Customers use a phone app to locate and unlock a bike or scooter. They can ride it anywhere they want, then park and leave it for the next person when they’re finished using it.

It costs $1 to use one of LimeBikes traditional bicycles for 30 minutes, or 50 cents for students. Electric scooters cost $1 to unlock, then 15 cents per minute to use. Monthly subscriptions are also available.

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The no-station-needed system gives dockless systems farther reach at less cost, proponents say. Because no infrastructure is required, the system makes bikes accessible to people in areas, particularly low-income areas, where traditional bike share systems don’t have stations.

But not everyone agrees it’s a good idea. In Washington, D.C., bikes from dockless systems have been illegally parked, blocking walkways and building entrances. Some pranksters have even “parked” dockless bikes in trees or other creative places.

LimeBike was founded in January 2016 and already has planted thousands of brightly painted bikes in nearly 50 cities or university campuses around the country, including Dallas. It has added electric bikes and electric scooters to their offerings in some of its markets

Company officials say LimeBike operates the only multi-modal dockless sharing system in the country. In Seattle, where LimeBike has deployed more than 500 electric bicycles, about 40 percent of the fleet is electric.

LimeBike placed 400 of the electric scooters in San Diego last month, and reaction so far has been good, said Caen Contee, vice president of marketing and partnership for LimeBike. A smaller pilot program with less than 30 scooters was launched in Washington, D.C., and Seattle this year, too.

“It’s the ease with which you can get around on them, the feeling of freedom to go anywhere,” Contee says. “Electric seems to be a game changer. We see people in business suits going to meetings on them as well as college students or tourists.”

Contee said that collaboration with the city is important to make the system work.

The company encourages helmet use, but doesn’t provide them, although some subscription packages include a subsidized helmet.

Contee said LimeBike is partnering with businesses in some communities to provide designated parking areas for dockless system vehicles, in an effort to ensure that bikes don’t wind up cluttering public areas. It has also added video popups and alerts to remind users not to park in certain places – and to warn them to move the vehicles or get fined. A local operations team will also sweep the area, looking for illegally parked bikes and scooters.