San Antonio appears to be tightening its enforcement on the swelling numbers of e-scooters on city streets and sidewalks.
With an increasing number of riders – and pedestrians they’ve collided with – ending up in local emergency rooms and a glut of vehicles scattered about sidewalks in the center city and beyond, the City has beefed up enforcement of its dockless, electric vehicle regulations in recent weeks.
Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said Wednesday the City will begin testing out designated parking areas early next year with the Henry B. González Convention Center, Hemisfair, and other high-traffic areas targeted as early proving grounds. City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said he will propose six updates to a six-month pilot program that established rules of the road for the nascent e-scooter industry. Treviño said he would like to see the updates adopted before the City Council reviews the program in May.
“We don’t need to wait until the end of the pilot program,” Treviño said. “A lot of these things we can act on pretty quickly.”
When operators Bird and Lime first arrived in the city, just a few hundred e-scooters were zipping through San Antonio streets. That number rose to more than 3,000 when the City Council enacted a six-month pilot program in October and has since grown to more than 10,000 approved e-scooters.
Homegrown e-scooter operator Blue Duck Scooters, which maintains just over 100 scooters, is in favor of the parking zones and expected them to be included in the original pilot program, said Casey Whittington, Blue Duck’s national director of government affairs.
“We are of the opinion that it has gotten out of hand here,” Whittington said. “Frankly, more scooters have shown up than we anticipated. … When the initial regulations came out, we were surprised with how lax the City was.”
Blue Duck also endorses a cap on the number of vehicles allowed to operate locally, Whittington said. Current rules do not limit the number of scooters a company can operate in the city. The City of Austin set a maximum for how many scooters each company can operate downtown, but operators can seek authorization to operate more outside of downtown. Austin recently penalized Lime for exceeding its authorized amount.
“As much as we believe in the free market … we have seen, certainly, that this [increase in e-scooters] is unsustainable,” Whittington said. “There has to be a middle ground. I’m worried about the process of finding that middle ground, but I have confidence in the city officials we’ve been working with.”
Representatives with Bird and Lime did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.
The City’s initial approach to regulating the nascent transportation mode was lauded by scooter companies and local tech sector leaders as employing a light touch – effecting safeguards, such as age restrictions and parking guidelines, while not overreaching with stifling rules.
In November, the City and Centro began correcting parking violations. Since Nov. 1, about 6,100 have been moved because of parking offenses, Houston said.
Seventy e-scooters have been impounded for being parked in prohibited areas, such as the River Walk, Mission Reach, and Alamo Plaza. The City began impounding e-scooters parked in restricted areas on Dec. 17, Houston said. Center City Development and Operations, the City department tasked with monitoring e-scooter parking, will hire more enforcement officers early next month, she said.
Although the City encourages complainants to report violations directly to the operators, Houston said 311 has received more than 120 complaints from residents since Oct. 11. Most were reporting parking infractions.
As more riders hop aboard scooters, injuries are mounting for both riders and pedestrians in their path. The City has recorded in excess of 50 e-scooter-related injuries since that time, but that includes only patients transported via the City’s Emergency Medical Services.
The Emergency Clinic at the Pearl, a 24/7 free-standing emergency room on lower Broadway, sees anywhere from one to three patients with scooter-related injuries a day, said Dr. Michael Magoon, The Emergency Clinic’s medical director and co-owner. Including its Alamo Heights location, Magoon estimates the clinic has admitted anywhere from 150 to 200 with injuries they sustained while riding e-scooters.
“If you fall off that scooter and hit your head hard enough you’ll see a fatality at some point,” he said.
In San Antonio, a man sustained a life-threatening head injury after being struck by a pickup truck while riding an e-scooter against traffic in October, according to local TV station KENS5.
Injuries have become so prevalent that San Antonio-based personal injury law firm Thomas J. Henry has set up a landing page for people who have been involved in e-scooter-related accidents.
Some people have been injured after tripping over e-scooters toppled over on the sidewalk, said Dr. Manuel Vogt, a family medicine physician in Alamo Heights.
The City has conducted surveys, however, that show public sentiment largely favors e-scooters, and some riders who have been in accidents say they remain proponents of dockless, electric vehicles as part of the solution to traffic gridlock and an over-reliance on automobiles. But support appears to be rising for barring them from being ridden on sidewalks and reducing the permitted number of vehicles.
Residents Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) doesn’t regularly hear from have begun stopping her during her visits to the grocery store or taquería to show her pictures of e-scooters blocking pedestrian walkways and ramps for wheelchairs.
“When I get those kinds of messages, I pay attention,” Gonzales said. “They’re just regular citizens and they have been complaining a lot about them being all over the place in a haphazard way.”
She hasn’t seen enough data, however, to suggest a reduction in the number of vehicles or setting a limit, but that will be one thing she looks for as the pilot program progresses, she said. Overall, she is encouraged by what she sees as a genuine transportation option, one she hopes will advance the City’s bicycle master plan.
Treviño also has proposed charging the City’s new Pedestrian Mobility Officer with studying the safety implications of allowing scooterists to ride on sidewalks. He said the in-development sidewalk master plan must reflect the growing demand for non-automobile modes of transportation in the urban core.
“Our city has been very automobile-centric for too long, and understanding where the pedestrian fits into all this planning is very important,” Treviño told The Rivard Report. “There’s room for everyone. We just have to create a framework that allows this to work.”
Loretta Mendoza loved riding e-scooters to get from a downtown surface parking lot to the Hilton Garden Inn on Houston Street, where she worked this past summer. But her enthusiasm for them has tempered as she has seen them littered about downtown thoroughfares and as riders flout the rules.
“I like them, but I think people need to take responsibility when they ride them,” said Mendoza, a Southtown resident. “I can imagine what it’s going to be like this weekend with the Alamo Bowl and New Year’s Eve. I wouldn’t doubt it if something happens.”