Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The City of San Antonio could slash the number of shared, dockless e-scooters and e-bikes operating in the city once its six-month pilot program concludes at the end of this month.
City officials are crafting a permanent framework for the electric vehicles after the City’s pilot initiative drew seven companies to apply for permits to operate a total of 16,100 vehicles. The new process may entail selecting bids from only a handful of companies – likely three – while also significantly paring the number of scooters and bikes on the streets, said John Jacks, director of the City’s Center City Development and Operations department.
City Council members are set to address the contract language as well as possible regulatory tweaks at an upcoming transportation committee meeting. Jacks said bids likely would be solicited after the Council’s meeting hiatus in July.
In the meantime, the six dockless vehicle companies – Bird, Lime, Razor, Blue Duck, Uber-owned Jump, and Lyft – can continue to operate. A seventh company, Spin, owned by automotive giant Ford, has a permit for 500 scooters but has yet to launch services in San Antonio.
The six-month pilot program is likely to be extended beyond its scheduled cutoff at the end of April, Jacks said. That means the City won’t ratchet down the number of operators and vehicles before Fiesta begins on April 18.
California scooter-share purveyors Bird and Lime brought the first batch of dockless vehicles to San Antonio last summer, and the City adopted a permitting system in October along with a set of rules described as a “light” regulatory approach: a minimum age of 16 for riders, a prohibition on riding on roads with speed limits above 35 mph, as well as provisions for parking scooters and for riding them on sidewalks.
Five other companies followed in Bird and Lime’s footsteps, and the local fleet swelled from a few hundred to several thousand. More than a million scooter rides have been taken in the city since the October pilot began largely in the tourist-heavy urban core, but the scooters and bikes have cropped up in other parts of town: the University of Texas at San Antonio and in low-income areas of the city where fewer residents own cars.
But the popular mode of transportation also has produced a tidal wave of issues: an oversupply downtown, where vehicles often clutter the sidewalk; accidents that have sent many to emergency rooms; tandem riding that often strains the weight limit of the vehicles; and difficult-to-enforce underage riding enabled by parents and other accompanying adults who unlock the scooters using their accounts.
Scooter riders also have entered prohibited areas, such as Alamo Plaza, the River Walk, and Mission Reach. Some scooters have had to be fished out of the San Antonio River. The sidewalk clutter has disproportionately affected people who use the City’s ADA infrastructure as access ramps are sometimes blocked by parked or fallen scooters.
But since the City stepped up enforcement in November, placed a moratorium on issuing permits for additional vehicles in January, and tightened regulations in February, Jacks said he’s noticed fewer violations.
“Anecdotally, I think I’ve seen a difference just walking and driving in the mornings, particularly since the revisions Council adopted,” he said. “I think a lot of that has to do with this requirement that they’re not riding at night. … It’s created a late-night reset in those areas.”
The City in February imposed an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, which requires companies to make scooters inoperable during those hours.
The City has four parking employees dedicated to scooter enforcement. Two parking enforcement officers walk areas of high scooter use every day to correct any violations. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are at least three on duty.
Jacks said City staff is likely to recommend requiring companies to use geofencing, a technology that restricts use or slows scooters down in designated areas. Geofencing would allow for a more nuanced approach to capping the number of permitted vehicles, he said. Rather than setting citywide scooter and bike limits, Jacks said the City could recommend setting geographic maximums.
“We definitely feel that there are too many downtown,” he said. “The challenge is, what is the appropriate number?”
“We want to make sure we’re not over-saturating any area of our downtown,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño, who represents the urban core in District 1. “A more thoughtful approach about making sure we provide a meaningful amount that proportions the availability of scooters in our city is the right approach.”
David Heard, the head of local high-technology trade organization Tech Bloc, said a bidding process to select three vendors as well as limit the number of operable scooters and bikes would be a “balanced compromise.” Earlier conversations with the City began with one or two vendors as a starting point, Heard said, but Tech Bloc opposed what it called a “government-controlled monopoly.”
“There were conversations about two or one, and our position is three is the minimum,” he said. “That’s not a random number. It’s also not 100 percent scientific, but there’s some science and some learning behind why three might be more beneficial.”
He said users and innovation would suffer in a market with fewer competitors.
For Blue Duck Scooters, a locally owned company, a reduction in the number of companies and vehicles could be welcome news. Licensed to operate 100 scooters, the San Antonio startup recently released its second-generation scooter model and a new app. The City’s process for evaluating contracts often gives preference to local businesses, although language for the request for proposals has not been finalized.
“We anticipate, going forward as a local company, that we will have some kind of points awarded on an RFP,” said Casey Whittington, Blue Duck’s director of government relations. “We haven’t seen the language yet so we’re not sure how it’s going to work. We anticipate being one of the selected vendors with a much higher allotment [of scooters] than we have.”
A lot can change between now and when City Council approves a new process for authorizing dockless vehicle operators. City staff has not formally presented its recommendations to the Council, but all signs indicate the City is tightening its grip on the local scooter-share and bikeshare industry.