Dockless electric scooters can’t be ridden on San Antonio sidewalks, per a new City ordinance that went into effect Monday, but many say they’re concerned about how well it will be enforced.
The new prohibition on sidewalk use comes a full year after rented e-scooters first arrived in San Antonio. It took months to arrive at the point where the City Council deemed riding on the sidewalk enough of a nuisance to move them off pedestrian rights-of-way and onto the street. But even though violating that law is a Class C misdemeanor that can carry as much as a $500 fine, some in the city are not sure that will be enough to deter violators.
For Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), the lone dissenting vote on a May 30 vote to enact a sidewalk riding prohibition, the idea of a few San Antonio police officers being able to prevent thousands of scooter riders from riding on the sidewalk is a head-scratcher.
“My concern is is that people are going to start overnight expecting that next week you’ll no longer start seeing people on sidewalks,” said Pelaez, who has emerged recently as one of the loudest opponents of scooters on City Council. “I think they’re going to be disappointed. When we write policy and when we enact new ordinances we have to question whether there’s enforceability behind it. I’m pretty certain all this has done is set us up to receive concerned phone calls every single day saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I saw a scooter on a sidewalk. Please do something about it.’”
Capt. Chris Benavides, with the San Antonio Police Department, said the sidewalk riding ban will begin with a 30-day grace period in which violators will be issued warnings about the new rule rather than citations. On Aug. 1, Benavides said, police officers will begin issuing citations in situations that call for them.
“The entire month of July will be used as an educational piece where we will issue written or verbal warnings for riding on the sidewalk,” he said.
“What we hope for is that the riders are mindful … that we’re able to work together to share that road and they’re aware of their surroundings.”
As of mid-June, Benavides said, the San Antonio Police Department has issued 80 citations and 438 warnings to scooter riders in connection with such violations as running red lights and riding tandem on a single scooter. A drop in the number of citations issued in recent months can be owed to the City’s decision to set a curfew for scooter riding, he said. After San Antonio City Council barred the scooters from being ridden between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., scooter-related injuries and traffic violations declined.
Coinciding with the sidewalk ban, the City will dedicate two more officer shifts per day dedicated to monitoring scooter violations, up from one three-hour daily shift. SAPD’s downtown bike patrol and park police officers are charged with enforcing the brunt of scooter traffic laws. Revenue from the fees charged to scooter companies funds the overtime pay for dedicated scooter enforcement.
The City began what it called a light-touch approach to regulating scooters in October and deliberately left sidewalk riding off its initial list of rules. Protected bike lanes are far from available on all the thoroughfares on which scooters are popularly ridden, and scooter riders would be able to use their best judgment as to whether to traverse sidewalks or the road, the City Council decided last fall.
Then came the flood of calls and 311 reports about reckless scooter riders. More than 100 people suffered injuries using scooters, were hit by them, or tripped over them, according to San Antonio emergency medical services. That’s just the number of incidents that were phoned into 911.
From September to June, San Antonio emergency personnel responded to 173 incidents involving scooter injuries, according to the latest figures from the San Antonio Fire Department. Some of those injured suffered lacerations, bone fractures, and concussions.
As a neighborhood association president and avid scooter rider, Cherise Rohr-Allegrini straddles the e-scooter issue. She sees both the value of the eco-friendly, two-wheeled vehicles and the danger they present.
Every time she walks from her Lavaca home in Southtown to downtown she has to duck and dodge scooterists motoring on the sidewalk. Though the vast majority of scooters users appear to be joyriders and tourists, she said, she knows plenty of conscientious riders. Rohr-Allegrini was happy to see the rule change, but she is hoping to see effective enforcement.
Receive updates on the local impact of coronavirus in your inbox every morning.
“That’s essential to keeping pedestrians safe on the sidewalk,” she said.
Willie Mae Clay, a Bexar County resident who uses a motorized scooter to get around because she has a disability, said jettisoning riders from the sidewalk won’t prevent the scooter clutter often in her path. She said violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act are frequent as scooters are parked haphazardly on the sidewalk or toppled over in the path of people using wheelchairs and other means of transport. Clay would rather see the City designate locations far from the street and sidewalk as parking zones.
“You don’t even have to be a person with a disability,” she said. “You can be an able-bodied person and trip over these things. These scooters present a hazard to the citizenry in general.”
Clay is a member of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, which testified in April in favor of a Texas proposal to regulate e-scooters statewide. Senate Bill 549 would have prohibited scooter riding on sidewalks, mandated a minimum age of 16 to ride, set speed limits of 15 mph for standing scooters and 20 mph for seated scooters, among other provisions. The bill foundered after missing a key deadline.
Also among the list of witnesses was OjO Electric, an Oxnard, California-based e-scooter dealer who began scooter-share services in January in such places as Austin; Dallas; and Hoboken, New Jersey. The company is one of 10 scooter-share operators that aim to win a contract with the City as it winnows down from six companies to three.
It may come as a surprise that OjO testified in favor of the legislation, but OjO’s scooters are built to be used on the road and in protected bike lanes, said Matt Tolan, the company’s vice president of sales and partnerships. Tolan claims OjO scooter tires are better suited for traveling over potholes and bumpy roads than the common stand-up scooters.
“I think for scooters to really flourish they have to be off the sidewalks,” Tolan said. “It’s just a recipe for accidents if you have pedestrians, bikes, and scooters on the sidewalks. That’s why we’re vehemently against scooter riding on the sidewalk. Scooters belong on a protected bike lane or the far-right-hand side of the street.”
Locally based operator Blue Duck Scooters will apply stickers to their scooters informing riders of the new law as well as add educational information on the company’s scooter-share app. Elizabeth Lyons Houston, Blue Duck’s chief marketing officer, said the company supports the City’s decision to bar riding on the sidewalk.
“In an ideal world we would encourage riders to use bike lanes first and their best judgment second,” Lyons Houston said, acknowledging the hazard caused by pedestrians and scooters competing for the same space.
Lime, which operates thousands of scooters in San Antonio, has instructed riders to use bike lanes where available and avoid the sidewalk “from day one,” said Joe Deshotel, the company’s government relations manager for Texas.
“We’re going to do our part to make sure riders know what the rules are and help the City enforce them,” Deshotel said. Lime also will attach flyers to their scooters alerting riders to the new sidewalk prohibition, along with the advisory that scooters aren’t allowed on the River Walk or Alamo Plaza, he said.
The scooter scourge hit home for Pelaez when his friend and City photographer Fred Gonzales broke his arm after being hit by a scooter.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Pelaez said.
His right arm shattered, Gonzales could no longer work until he recovered from his injury.
Pelaez said if it were up to him, he would favor an outright ban on scooters. But there doesn’t appear to be much support among his colleagues for that.
“There is no scenario where there will be six votes for a ban on scooters,” he said. “If there is going to be no ban on scooters, then you have to figure out how to live with them.”