Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The number of e-scooters and e-bikes authorized in San Antonio could be whittled down to less than a third of the current fleet and the number of companies cut in half after the San Antonio City Council’s Transportation Committee moved forward with a City staff recommendation Monday.
The recommendation calls for no more than 5,000 to be permitted under a competitive bid process that would result in the selection of three operators at most. The City previously authorized Lyft, Jump, Razor, Lime, Bird, and Blue Duck to operate more than 15,000 e-assist vehicles in San Antonio. A seventh company, Ford-owned Spin, was granted a permit but has not launched.
But with three members present at the committee meeting – Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) was absent – a consensus failed to materialize. The motion to forward the staff recommendation to a City Council B Session, where proposals are workshopped ahead of a vote, was approved only by a 2-1 vote. Committee Chairman Rey Saldaña, who represents District 4, and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) voted for the measure, while Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) rejected it.
“I just feel like we’re not really addressing the issue we have in our city, which is we are a city that limits transportation options,” Gonzales said. “I feel like this is just a way to still limit transportation options for people who don’t have the option of driving an automobile. I may be in the minority here, but I just don’t support [a competitive bidding] process.”
The City of San Antonio began a six-month pilot program in October during which it tested regulations for the nascent e-scooter industry. Rules allowed any operator to apply for a permit for $500 and $10 per authorized vehicle. The City described 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. The local scooter scene began to emerge with Santa Monica, California-based Bird arriving unannounced in June with several hundred scooters.
Now with the original pilot program winding down, the City is proposing extending the pilot until the competitive bidding process, known as a request for proposals, comes to an end. The City expects to have selected companies via the competitive bids by September.
Its criteria for selecting the recommended three vendors would favor companies who can help meet the City’s stated goals for dockless vehicle operation in the city limits: reducing scooter clutter; protecting sensitive areas, such as the River Walk and Alamo Plaza; and incentivizing good rider behavior, safety, and data sharing.
Discussion at the B Session meeting, slated for late May, is likely to include whether to require revenue sharing from the selected vendors. Administering the six-month pilot program has thus far cost the City $165,000, said Lori Houston, the assistant city manager who oversees dockless vehicle policy. Houston said the City is also considering charging the companies more for every vehicle they seek to operate. That number could rise from $10 a vehicle to as much as $60 a vehicle, she said, to recoup the cost of parking enforcement, police officer overtime pay, and educating the public on rider safety and regulations.
Public criticism of scooter regulations and the City’s enforcement of its rules loudened late last year, as more companies began to bring larger and larger fleets to San Antonio. City staff did not closely monitor sidewalk clutter and rider violations until November, when it started to hire parking enforcement officers dedicated to scooters and e-bikes. Concerned residents began calling and emailing their local Council members. Although Gonzales has notably been the staunchest voice opposing a contraction of the scooter fleet, she admitted “people don’t like them” in her district.
“Believe me, I hear it a lot,” she said. “In fact, it could be one of the No. 1 complaints. People don’t like the scooters.”
But Saldaña said he preferred a competitive bidding process because it would add a level of “quality control” that has been absent during the pilot program.
“We’ve tried a laissez-faire approach of letting operators do what they will, and we’ve learned a lot from that,” he said.
Sandoval said soliciting bids would ensure the City is able to collect fees for the work it is providing to regulate the market and enforce the rules. “I’m not sure how we achieve that without a [request for proposals],” she said.
The councilwoman also expressed interest in revisiting riding on the sidewalk. Current regulations allow scooterists on the sidewalk in areas where bike lanes do not exist.
“I was downtown during Fiesta, and it was extremely crowded,” she said. “I felt a little bit like it was dangerous with the scooters and the crowds.”
Until the three vendors are selected, City Council will consider a proposed slashing of the permitted fleet. City staff recommended reducing by half the number of scooters and e-bikes authorized for companies with at least 1,000 permitted vehicles. Bird, for example, would have to reduce its local fleet from 4,500 to 2,250 scooters.
Blanca LaBorde, senior government relations manager for Bird, said the company deployed an average of about 1,400 vehicles in March. As the company has learned from the data it has gathered, it has worked to distribute its fleet to respond to demand.
“Our company has been very focused this year, since January … on optimizing our operations,” LaBorde said. “The last thing we want are scooters on the road that are not being ridden.”
Under the proposal, the pilot would be extended to Sept. 30 with the bidding process set to conclude that month. The total fleet would drop from 16,100 scooters and e-bikes to 8,750 if that passes in May.
City Council will workshop the proposal on May 15 and is slated to take a vote on the bidding process and fleet reduction at its May 30 meeting.