Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
San Antonio’s sharing economy just took a zippy step forward with the arrival of hundreds more dockless electric scooters on downtown streets, available to just about anyone with a smartphone and the nerve to get on board.
I spent a couple of hours Friday and Saturday riding scooters for the first time, eager to share my experience, particularly with baby boomers and older readers who might wonder about their own ability to safely use this low-impact mode of urban transit suddenly appearing in cities all over the world.
If you can ride a bike, you can ride a scooter. It’s the other guy in the motorized vehicle you need to watch out for on city streets. Or, if you happen to be operating a scooter recklessly, as many do, it’s the rest of us who have to watch out for you.
Scooters might or might not be here for good. Their arrival is likely to be greeted with as much resistance as welcome.
I rode a Bird scooter from our family home near H-E-B headquarters on East Arsenal Street to the Rivard Report offices on East Houston Street, a quick 1.1-mile jaunt. Encouraged by my safe arrival, I took a second Bird back into Southtown for 23 minutes, stopping and starting at several points.
The scooters are ideal for short hops, but I decided to set out on a longer ride that clocked in at 41 minutes, north on Main Avenue past San Antonio College, into Monte Vista, Alta Vista, Beacon Hill, Tobin Hill, and over to the Pearl. I returned down Broadway back to East Houston Street just in time to meet with a group of UTSA students at the Geekdom Event Centre.
Friday happened to be the same day that San Mateo, California-based Lime opened for business in San Antonio with 200 of its distinctive green and white scooters now visible on city sidewalks. Lime joins Los Angeles-based Bird, which launched here in late June with a fleet of several hundred scooters.
Other competitors plan on jumping into the market. The Rivard Report published an article in April about locally-owned startup Blue Duck Scooters, which hopes to launch here with a fleet of 1,000 vehicles, according to co-founder and President Eric Bell. No date for the start of operations has been released yet.
City officials returning from the traditional summer break this week will be tasked with fashioning regulations to manage scooter share while avoiding the political backlash that greeted the administration of former Mayor Ivy Taylor when rideshare companies Uber and Lyft were temporarily banned from lightly regulated operations in San Antonio.
If my experience Friday was typical, regulation is going to be essential to avoiding collisions between scooter users and motorized vehicles on city streets as well as with pedestrians on sidewalks and crosswalks.
The challenges that cyclists face in traffic are the same for scooterists. I experienced one SUV driver failing to yield the right of way to me, and two other SUV drivers who accelerated purposely to turn in front of me, all forcing me to brake rapidly and unsafely.
Many people will quickly turn anti-scooter in San Antonio unless users abide by the rules which, frankly, the scooter companies are helpless to enforce. City officials will likely come under pressure to enforce those rules, yet local authorities already turn a blind eye to the commercial use of Segway two-wheelers on downtown sidewalks and to the reckless cycling on downtown streets and sidewalks of the ubiquitous Jimmy John’s fast-food delivery servers.
It would seem unfair to single out scooter users while giving a pass to others.
I counted 84 scooter users in motion during the 70 minutes I was riding. Not a single rider except yours truly was wearing a bike helmet. Bird says you have to be 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license. I saw three teen girls, barefoot and without helmets, on scooters in front of the Alamo. How they got around the minimum age and driver’s license requirements, I cannot say.
All but eight of the 84 scooters I counted Friday were in use on sidewalks rather than city streets. That is undoubtedly going to rile opponents. A few days ago I was nearly struck while walking in front of the Majestic Theatre by two scooter riders traveling at full speed on the East Houston Street sidewalk, oblivious to pedestrians.
Cyclists know there are occasions where a sidewalk is the only safe refuge from congested traffic, speeding vehicles, illegally parked vehicles, or other such circumstances. But sidewalk use is meant to be the exception rather than the rule, and so it should be for scooter users, too.
I was returning downtown, moving west on Travis Street, when three scooter riders ran the red light at top speed traveling south on Jefferson Street, narrowly avoiding a mid-intersection collision.
The Bird scooters do not have a speedometer; the top speed I reached was probably below the stated 15 mph maximum speed. The first Bird scooter I rode was beat up and performed poorly on Main Plaza and the brick surface of East Houston Street.
The second Bird scooter performed better, yet could barely make it up the hill on North Main Avenue at San Antonio Academy. Some leg work was required there. After a second hill, I quickly turned east in search of flatter ground.
Both Lime scooters I rode were in much better condition, and featured a speedometer that registered my top speed at 19.8 mph.
Scooters are an inexpensive, easy-to-operate, low-impact transit option that can help reduce the number of motorized vehicles operating in the urban core, a welcome addition to the overheated downtown landscape. Few of those streets, however, make room for cyclists or scooter riders, and that means navigating traffic.
Locals and visitors are embracing the scooters with enthusiasm, but they are not necessarily operating them legally or safely. It will only take a few incidents of scooters colliding with pedestrians on sidewalks before heavy regulation will result. Only responsible use can avert that outcome.