Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The City of San Antonio opted for a light touch in proposing rules for dockless e-scooters Wednesday, garnering support from both City Council members and the companies that will be subject to them.
Preliminary regulations include operating and applications fees that would total $17,500 for San Antonio's largest e-scooter operator, a minimum age of 16 for riders, and parking enforcement backed by fines and two-hour deadlines for correcting violations.
But the recommendations presented at a City Council session Wednesday did not call for a prohibition on sidewalk use; rather, riders should use their best judgment whether to use the roadway or the sidewalk and leave a minimum of a two-foot walking path for pedestrians, according to staff recommendations.
The proposed regulations are looser than those that have been put into effect in cities such as Austin; Dallas; Durham, North Carolina; and San Francisco. The latter three municipalities banned e-scooters from being ridden on sidewalks. Unlike Austin and San Francisco, San Antonio is not putting a cap on the number of vehicles that can be introduced in the city.
Santa Monica, California-based e-scooter company Bird launched in late June and released hundreds of its dockless electric scooters in downtown San Antonio. Its fleet has since increased to 1,700 citywide, said Lori Houston, assistant city manager.
That means more than 2,000 e-scooters are being ridden in the city. City staff said five other companies have expressed interest in operating in San Antonio, which could double the total number of vehicles, Houston said.
Unlike its fierce opposition to rideshare when Uber and Lyft began offering rides in the city, San Antonio City Council has greeted Bird and San Mateo, California-based competitor LimeBike in a welcoming fashion, and the balance of the Council found Wednesday's proposals both considerate of public safety concerns and accommodating to innovation.
"I think you’ve landed on a good healthy medium here," Mayor Ron Nirenberg told Houston after the presentation.
On Oct. 11, the council is set to vote on whether to approve the proposed regulations in the form of a six-month pilot program and not a permanent ordinance. The City will collect data and input during the pilot period and present a full regulatory framework for council consideration in April or May of next year.
Blanca Laborde, Bird's senior manager of government relations, said Bird supports the proposed rules, including a $17,500 cost to operate during the six-month pilot program. Per the recommendations, the City would collect a $500 application fee from companies seeking to operate in the city and $10 per vehicle. The City would also be able to assess a $50 fee for every parking violation or other incident that breaks with the prescribed policy framework.
"We believe responsible regulation is important as dockless mobility [expands] in San Antonio," she said later during a public hearing on dockless vehicle regulations at City Hall. "Many of the essential elements in your ordinance are critical to providing a safe ... option."
Companies would have two hours to correct any parking violations and one hour if a scooter is parked in a prohibited area. The proposed rules call for scooters to be parked in such a way that provides a 3-foot walking path.
Under the rules, Bird and LimeBike, which has about 300 scooters in San Antonio, would be required to have a San Antonio-based fleet manager to correct any unauthorized use.
Patti Zaiontz, a downtown tour guide, said she's had many dangerous encounters with scooterists zipping down sidewalks. She believes they should be regulated in the city as bicycles and similar modes of transportation are – barred from sidewalks.
"We have a lot of folks who come here and see our beautiful city," Zaiontz said. "Our sidewalks should not be cluttered with scooters. Keep them away from our sidewalks, and keep them away from our tourists."
David Heard, who heads local tech sector advocacy group Tech Bloc, said he was "super encouraged" by the City's presentation.
Heard said a proposed minimum riding age of 16 jibes with the industry standard; most of the major operators restrict usage to drivers' license holders who are 18 or older. That is largely because injury liability lies with e-scooter companies, and there is wide disparity between the insurance premiums for people aged 18 and older and anyone younger than that.
Also, a black-and-white approach to regulating sidewalk use is not safe, he said.
"There's going to be situations around location, weather, time of day, where it's just going to make more sense to not be on the roadway," Heard said. "Letting people use their best judgment is the way to go."
A third company, homegrown Blue Duck Scooters, has been operating in the city for a few months with a limited fleet. Government affairs representative Casey Whittington said the proposed regulations are in line with what the company expected.
"We really like the framework that was presented today," Whittington said.
But shades of the vexation that the City felt during its battle with rideshare companies a few years ago crept into Wednesday's meeting.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said Bird "pulled an Uber" when it launched in June without notifying the City. He said he wants e-scooter companies to provide data so that council can make the most informed policy decisions possible.
"The first organization [Bird] didn’t meet with anyone," he said. "As part of the permitting process, I would ask they commit to some level of reporting. … I have genuine concern about ... revisiting organizations that like to bully their way into the market."