Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Rideshare giant Lyft on Wednesday launched scooter services in San Antonio, becoming the sixth company to operate the dockless electric vehicles that have popped up all over the city since June.
The company has released 250 scooters initially and plans to scale up in coordination with the City of San Antonio, said Caroline Samponaro, head of bicycle and pedestrian policy for Lyft.
“We have permission to operate 2,000,” Samponaro said. “We’re launching with 250 as a commitment to making sure we scale responsibly, but we intend to get to 2,000. … We want to make sure we’re … not just saturating an already saturated place but really providing the transportation solution to a larger city.”
In a crowded field of competitors – Bird, Lime, Razor, Blue Duck Scooters, Uber-owned Jump, Lyft, and Spin all have permits to operate here – Lyft officials said the company is looking to stand out by bucking the trend of limited cooperation with local government. In June, Bird became the first scooter company to launch in San Antonio by releasing several hundred scooters downtown overnight. Council members have said Bird’s lack of outreach beforehand was irksome. Other operators have shown varying levels of responsiveness since then.
At a Wednesday press conference, Lyft unveiled scooter docking stations, steel racks that would be used for stowing the vehicles after use. The docking stations have not been installed yet. A City spokeswoman told the Rivard Report on Monday that Lyft had not informed the City of its plans to use the docking stations, and the company would have to apply for a permit to deploy them on public rights-of-way.
“We would need to work with them to have that in place,” said Kelly Kapaun Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Center City Development and Operations department. “They’ve been [communicative] and cooperative throughout the process, but this hasn’t been a part of our discussions with them.”
Lyft will work with the City to determine where to place the docking stations in combination with City-established parking zones in the urban core, Samponaro said. The City is also set to install dockless vehicle parking corrals located on the street in place of on-street parking spots.The City does not mandate parking scooters and e-bikes in the designated areas but is testing whether it can effectively prevent sidewalk clutter. If all is approved, San Antonio could become one of Lyft’s first markets with the docking stations, Samponaro said.
“Just walking around before this event downtown, it feels like it would be a really nice added value to creating order on the sidewalk,” she said.
Although a majority of San Antonio residents indicated in a City survey a glut of scooters on the streets creates safety and accessibility issues for pedestrians, the demand for a short-distance mode of transportation is high with nearly 1.5 million scooter and e-bike rides completed since the City kicked off its six-month pilot program for dockless vehicles in the fall.
The number of permitted vehicles topped out in January at 16,100 – 14,100 scooters and 2,000 e-bikes – as the City placed a moratorium on additional applications to operate rented dockless vehicles for the remainder of the pilot program. But most companies do not deploy their entire fleet. On average, there were about 6,000 vehicles on San Antonio rights-of-way per day, according to City data.
Lyft’s arrival follows close behind its rival in the rideshare world, Uber. The San Francisco-based ride-hailing giant launched its scooters and e-bikes operation in town last month. Uber is permitted to deploy as many as 2,000 e-scooters and 2,000 e-bikes. Like Uber, Lyft’s services are all available in one app. Samponaro said Lyft is positioning itself as a one-stop shop for multimodal transportation. In Washington, D.C., for example, the City’s public transit information is embedded in the Lyft app, along with that city’s bike-share, scooter, and ride-hailing services.
“Suddenly we’re giving people a real menu of multimodal options,” Samponaro said. “It seems like in Texas cities there’s an appetite to get around in multiple ways. We’re excited that we can help meet that demand and provide that solution to our city partners.”
The company offers $5-per-month community passes for low-income residents who qualify for state or federal assistance programs or discounted utility bills. Purchasing a community pass gives users unlimited 30-minute rides within the San Antonio service area.
The new companies that have launched since Bird and Lime have all trended away from the freelance scooter maintenance and logistics strategies those companies have employed. Known as “chargers” or “juicers,” respectively, Bird and Lime’s contractors use the apps to scout scooters with drained batteries at night, take them home to charge overnight using company-issued chargers, and disperse them again in the morning. Razor, Blue Duck, Jump, and Lyft all maintain and charge their vehicles in-house.
“I think that gives us a certain level of control over the quality of our operations and the services we provide the city,” Samponaro said. “Our team … on the day-to-day [is] out in the field paying attention to pain points, they’re hearing from the City or business partners about issues on the sidewalk, and they’re very responsive. That’s the approach we’re taking, and we’re eager to provide that high-quality service.”
Unofficial Spurs mascot Spurs Jesus, née Cordero Maldonado, is a Lyft brand ambassador and was on hand for Wednesday’s kickoff. After scooting around a parking lot for a photo op, the local celebrity admitted he hasn’t been a fan of scooters up until now.
Maldonado, who lives downtown, said he has noticed entryways to the River Walk, especially near Blue Star Arts Complex, blocked by scooters. “I like the Lyft approach to it where they were much more calculated … and how they’re going about it with the docking stations,” Maldonado said. “I think it’s a genius way rather than just guerrilla marketing by throwing their scooters everywhere.”
A representative from local cycling advocacy group Bike San Antonio also spoke at Wednesday’s event. The nonprofit is now sponsored by Lyft, which said Wednesday it will make a concerted attempt to support investment in the underlying infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation. For Bike SA, that means boosting efforts to lobby for more protected bike lanes on Broadway Street.
“We should not have to be asking for these kinds of amenities in our infrastructure,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño, whose District 1 includes downtown where most of the scooter activity is concentrated. “They should be part of who we are here in the city of San Antonio. Part of our priority is public safety. So it should not mean that we have to have some courage to get out and bike or be on a scooter.”
Lyft is not guaranteed the opportunity to operate in San Antonio beyond the six-month pilot program, which concludes at the end of April, nor is any other dockless vehicle operator. Some Council members have favored a reduction in the number of authorized companies and vehicles, however, and that could mean any of the seven permitted companies could get the boot. Until then, the companies will make their case to remain in the city beyond the spring.