Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
E-scooters, the dockless electric two-wheeled vehicles flocking to major cities throughout the country, have made their way to San Antonio. For regulators, that means another possible quagmire as they walk the tightrope between ensuring safe and proper use and not appearing closed off to transportation innovations.
But there's a less adversarial feel to the regulatory process this time around, those involved in the process said.
In May 2015, advocacy group Tech Bloc rallied around the issue of rideshare regulation, which had seen ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft depart the city because of what the company saw as unfriendly rules.
CEO David Heard said "the lift is much lighter" as conversations on how to regulate the nascent dockless scooter industry get underway in the city.
"We're not having to start at the beginning and explain the importance of these kinds of innovation economy amenities for our population and our growing tech scene," Heard said. "I think there's a general acceptance now, and that's very different from this time three years ago."
For its part, the City of San Antonio said new dockless vehicle options have the potential to fill first- or last-mile transportation gaps. City staff is working with companies and stakeholders to create a dockless vehicle pilot program, which will help shape recommendations for a permanent regulatory framework, the Center City Development and Operations Department said in a statement.
"We have contacted dockless scooter providers to be a part of our stakeholder engagement process moving forward," the City said. "Our recommendations will be presented to City Council later this year, and we hope to strike a balance with these innovative transportation solutions and the safety of our residents and visitors on the public rights-of-way."
The City urges users of the app-enabled scooters not to park the vehicles where they would obstruct sidewalks or streets. Given e-scooters' maximum speed of about 15 miles per hour, users should follow traffic laws for similar vehicles such as bicycles, rollerblades, and skateboards.
A valid driver's license proving one is 18 years or older is required to ride as users must download the respective app to power on the scooter.
Bird released the first fleet of electric scooters into downtown San Antonio last month, charging a $1 base fee and 15 cents for every minute of usage.
“San Antonio and Bird have shared goals of strengthening transportation options for local residents while helping to reduce traffic and congestion," a Bird spokesperson said. "We look forward to continuing to serve San Antonio with a scalable fleet that meets demand across all parts of the city.”
In recent months, the California-based company unleashed its vehicles in multiple cities in the United States, including Austin.
Often the scooters have been seized or taken off the road after hitting legal snags. City of Austin staff in April rushed to enact a law that would prohibit leaving dockless vehicles on public rights-of-way.
In other cities, the regulatory landscape has typically entailed creating a permitting system, so that only municipally authorized companies could operate dockless vehicles, and capping the number of scooters and bikes per company.
San Francisco adopted an ordinance in April to stem the flow of the quickly proliferating businesses and ensure scooters are being used safely. In June, the Dallas City Council approved a regulatory framework imposing on e-scooter companies permits to operate and fees per vehicle.
In addition to Bird, California-based LimeBike has announced its intentions to enter the San Antonio market. Although the company would not give a timeline for a local launch, it confirmed its impending arrival to the Rivard Report.
"We have had positive discussions with city and community leaders, and are very excited to bring our scooters to San Antonio in the future," the company said in a statement.
Eric Bell is CEO of Blue Duck Scooters, a locally based company that was founded in March.
Blue Duck expects to enter the e-scooter fray with a fleet of hundreds of units the week of July 9. Users have been testing the scooters in the Pearl area along Broadway Street.
While Bell said capping vehicles and permitting companies is "reasonable for elected leaders to contemplate ... it's not something we're building our business around."
Tech Bloc is not keen on the concept of capping vehicles, Heard said. He said the companies' data-driven approach to scooter placement will ultimately render moot any regulations on the maximum number of vehicles per company.
"Given enough time, all of that will settle out," he said.
Bell said Blue Duck has national ambitions and is taking steps in its initial growth phase to expand into other Texas markets. But even with its eye on other markets, he said Blue Duck will remain engaged in the local governance process.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who chairs the City Council's Transportation Committee, said the committee is expected to discuss e-scooter regulations at its August meeting.
In the new wave of ridesharing innovation, Heard said Tech Bloc and the broader San Antonio tech community is in a position to have a seat at the table during the regulatory process.
"We want to make sure that, as these sharing economy regulations are put in place, that San Antonio be a place that leans forward on innovation and these kinds of lifestyle amenities that are important to young professionals," he said.