Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
City officials are working with a September timeframe for regulating dockless electric vehicles, the app-enabled, rentable scooters that have recently emerged in San Antonio.
The goal is to strike a balance between prohibiting a viable transit solution and maintaining public safety, said John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department.
"I think it's a high priority because right now we really don't have any regulations that specifically address this," Jacks said. "So we need to get something just to address a few ... things."
The City on Tuesday held a meeting to gather public input on how to regulate so-called e-scooters after three operators released scooters on streets downtown, around the Pearl, and in Southtown.
In June, Bird became the first company to operate locally; LimeBike's Lime-S scooters have been available for use since last week. Homegrown startup Blue Duck Scooters quietly launched July 19 after openly testing its units in the Pearl area, where dozens of scooters are now concentrated.
Jacks said he expects rules on the books in the form of a pilot program in either late August or early September as five more companies have approached the City, either by phone or email, with interest in operating locally: they include Razor USA (which manufactured non-electric scooters for children that reached peak popularity in the early 2000s), Spin, Skip, and Zagster.
One issue is parking. Jacks said the e-scooters' dockless nature has led to inappropriate parking, such as on narrow sidewalks and wheelchair ramps, and the obstruction of bus shelters.
With potentially as many as eight operators in San Antonio, congestion of these vehicles on the narrow thoroughfares downtown could cause problems, and the safety and quality of the scooters can also be a concern, Jacks added.
He said the City won't rule out capping the number of vehicles per operator, as cities such as San Francisco and Austin have, or authorizing operators based on a permitting system.
A pilot program would be in effect for a year. During the pilot period, the City could use public feedback and data from e-scooter operators to modify regulations and ultimately craft a permanent policy framework, Jacks said. The City will aim find middle ground between draconian and the lax.
"Some cities have come down very restrictive," he said. "Other cities have been very unrestrictive, so we're trying to find that sweet spot as to what's a reasonable regulation so we're not essentially prohibiting them. But we also want to make sure we're doing things in an orderly manner."
San Antonio City Council every year takes off a month in July. The Council's last full meeting happened before Bird's launch.
An online survey by the City has so far registered 361 respondents, about 63 percent of whom said their experience with dockless electric vehicles has thus far been positive. About one-quarter of those surveyed, however, have had negative experiences.
The love-or-hate response is perhaps reflective of the vehicles' capacity to deliver a fun and relatively seamless user experience but also draw ire when riders ignore safety and accessibility protocols.
Michael Vu, who sells electric unicycles for San Antonio company Electric Glider, wants to calm those negative perceptions and prevent excessive regulation.
"I don't want a few bad apples [to spur] a complete ban of these vehicles from public use," said Vu, who has sold about 30 electric unicycles – which cost anywhere from $400 to $2,000 – in Austin and San Antonio.
Vu said lightweight electric vehicles should be regulated the same way bicycles are in Texas; e-scooters, e-bikes, and e-unicycles should be allowed, for example, on hike-and-bike trails and anywhere that bicycles can be ridden.
In terms of safety requirements, state code addresses lamps and reflectors on both the front and rear of the bicycle, but does not mandate use of a helmet.
As for the locally based Blue Duck Scooters, co-founder and President Eric Bell has revealed few details about his plans as potentially more competitors circle.
Unlike Lime and Bird – which pay so-called chargers to collect the vehicles at night, charge them, and return them to high-use areas – Bell said Blue Duck employees collected and distribute all of his company's scooters.
"We're just being more methodical about it," he said. "There's one school of thought which is just throw things on the street, don't service them, and see what happens. Our school of thought has been, 'Don't do that, get a warehouse, get employees, service the units, pick them up, collect them, and put things that are as safe as possible out on the streets.'"
Blue Duck's in-house logistics will ensure the scooters are ready for use, Bell said, adding that his competitors rely on chargers to plug the vehicles in, but they don't test the brakes or inspect the motor. There may be an economic downside to that, but he believes Blue Duck will have an edge in delivering the safest product.
After experiencing a few "hiccups" prior to launch, Bell said Blue Duck is gearing up to arrive this fall semester on college campuses. The San Antonio native declined to say where and how many firm agreements with higher education institutions it has in place.
Blue Duck Scooters have been in use on the Trinity University campus, he said, with no contractual agreement required.
"The agreement stuff is really where the language gets tricky," Bell said. "It's really the good-faith intent to operate, which is what we have with the City of San Antonio right now. The City has said, 'You guys do what you're going to do, and then we're going to work our process, and then we'll meet in the middle.'"
Sounding off on e-scooters
San Antonians have taken to Twitter in recent days to weigh in on the dockless vehicles that are rising in popularity. Here's a selection of perspectives shared on social media:
birthday gift idea for citlalli: bird scooter gift card
— citlalli🌞 (@citllalli_r) July 30, 2018
Really important to give feedback on something this critical before it's scaled out further - dockless vehicles can be convenient for those w/ tech savviness to use them, but inconvenient for residents who deal w/scooters that block pedestrian pathways. https://t.co/M1URrEBYrX
— Clarissa Ramon (@Clari_Ramon) July 31, 2018
Riding around downtown on the scooter listening to The Weeknd and I’m having a lot of fun
— Z 🎒 (@_JaaaaayZ) July 31, 2018
San Antonio requires alternative modes of transportation, especially downtown where parking is already a nightmare and traffic continues to be an issue. However, there needs to be new bike & scooter lanes to safely utilize these vehicles off the sidewalks. https://t.co/00ROf2zJqK
— Brian Willeford (@brianwilleford) July 30, 2018
I was telling my co-worker that I suspect Bird and Lime are paying people to just ride around populated areas of San Antonio when out of nowhere, this person ZOOMS in front of my moving car. I managed to brake to avoid hitting this woman, but WTF.
— Mariah Medina (@MMedinanews) July 29, 2018