Scooters cross in front of the Pearl as pedestrians and vehicles share the road.
The City of San Antonio has awarded contracts to Bird and Razor as its sole e-scooter operators. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Pearl quietly outlawed electric scooters last week.

Rentable electric vehicles have become ubiquitous over the past six months with companies such as Bird, Lime, Razor, and Uber licensed to operate as many as 14,000 e-scooters and e-bikes, with about two-thirds of those vehicles deployed on a given day.  After months of conversations about scooters, the Pearl’s property managers decided to bar e-scooters from the center of redeveloped brewery complex, with pedestrian safety factoring heavily into the decision, said Jennifer Chowning, a spokeswoman for the Pearl. Scooters are not allowed in the area bounded by West Josephine Street, Avenue A, Newell Avenue, and East Elmira Street.

“We just decided, as we’re really trying to shift to more of a pedestrian-centric zone, that the scooters were becoming problematic,” Chowning said. “We really want to be protective of the pedestrian – the people that come to this space that don’t want to be worried about being run over from behind by a 16-year-old.”

The prohibition may prove difficult to enforce. The Pearl employs a force of so-called courtesy patrol officers who are tasked with monitoring scooter presence in the 22-acre complex, among other issues. No punitive measures exist for scooterists who ignore the ban, but management is hopeful patrons will follow its rules.

“We have such a porous campus that it’ll be a challenge” to keep the campus scooter-free, Chowning said. “The onus is on the riders to follow signage and be respectful of it.”

Before imposing an all-out ban, the Pearl had posted signage urging scooterists to use caution and observe a 5-mph speed limit. But those rules were “violated routinely,” Chowning said, and it became clear riders would not heed the Pearl’s cautionary guidelines.

Through a technology called geofencing, scooter companies have the ability to control where vehicles go and how fast they go in certain areas. For example, Lime recently instituted “low speed zones” in Santa Monica, California, to reduce accidents in crowded pedestrian areas, including along the beach. But the Pearl said it has not met with any local operators about implementing such limitations, Chowning said.

Even though he suspects the Pearl’s ban will be hard to enforce, something had to be done to make shopping there safer, said Whit Snell, who owns Bike World at the Pearl. He’s heard regular complaints from customers who have been hit by scooters, had close encounters, or tripped over them.

“Of course, we’re all about alternative transportation,” said Snell, “but not at the expense of having people trip over them and get hit by them.”

The City of San Antonio is midway through a six-month pilot program to test regulations of the dockless vehicle market.

Since the City started formally tracking scooter-associated injuries in September, two 911 calls reporting injuries to riders who fell off scooters originated in the vicinity of The Pearl.

Because the Pearl is privately owned, its management can prohibit dockless vehicles on the premises. On any public right-of-way, riders must adhere to the rules set forth in the City’s pilot program. Those include riding only on streets that have a speed limit of 35 mph or less, a minimum age of 16, maintaining a two-foot buffer for pedestrians on sidewalks, and using bike lanes where available.

Frank Pakuszewski, part-owner of Peruvian restaurant Botika at the Pearl, said although he believes scooters are part of the solution to modern transportation needs, the complex was not built to handle dockless vehicles, especially with some scooterists riding irresponsibly.

“There are instances where you have to do what you think is right, and I wouldn’t disagree with what [the Pearl is] doing,” Pakuszewski said. “I enjoy scooters. I enjoy riding them. I think they’re an interesting alternative to [solving our] parking issues. … But there are times when I’ve witnessed collisions and near-collisions, and unfortunately … not all riders are the same.”

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), whose district covers the Pearl and downtown, where most of the scooter activity is concentrated, said commercial property owners should feel empowered to create policies that work for them.

“This is an example of the Pearl exercising their rights,” he said. “They’ve done a tremendous job of creating a place people want to visit. It is an amazing place for pedestrian mobility. If they feel this is something they have to do, then I suspect they’ve done that [through a] thoughtful process.”

Hundreds celebrated the Red, White, and Blues celebration at Pearl.
The mixed-use Pearl development located just north of downtown. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Treviño hopes the creation of a pedestrian mobility officer to monitor downtown sidewalks will result in better enforcement of parking guidelines for dockless vehicles. In addition to sidewalk parking zones, the City is set to install several parking areas, called corrals, that will use on-street parking spaces as scooter parking in an attempt to conserve sidewalk space for pedestrians, especially where walkways are narrow. It’s all part of the framework Treviño said the City needs to create for all modes of transportation to coexist.

Homegrown scooter company Blue Duck Scooters, which has offices at the Pearl, said it was still gathering information on the ban, as it appears the scooter prohibition has not been thoroughly advertised in the mixed-use complex. A spokeswoman for the company said Blue Duck respects the decision of any private property owner to ensure scooters are used appropriately.

“That being said, we look forward to hopefully having conversations with the Pearl to partner with them long term and hopefully help provide the right solution for their needs,” said Elizabeth Houston, Blue Duck’s chief marketing officer. She said that could include geofencing to control speed or restrict rides in certain areas. Scooters are rented through smartphone apps, typically for a $1 to unlock the vehicle and 15 cents for every minute of usage. With geofencing, users would not be able to end their ride in a prohibited area, Houston said.

Last week, the City Council’s Transportation Committee imposed a moratorium on dockless vehicle permits. City staff recommended several other tweaks to the pilot program that will be considered at a February meeting of the full Council. What’s clear is that the City’s laissez-faire approach to regulating the industry is coming to an end as more personnel, including San Antonio police officers, have been charged with enforcing parking guidelines and other violations.

Members of council have fielded a growing number of calls from residents concerned about safety and accessibility issues related to the influx of scooters.

But Tech Bloc CEO David Heard advised against knee-jerk reactions to a pilot program that was designed to find the right regulatory balance over time. Heard, whose organization advocates for the tech sector in San Antonio, along with other industry stakeholders, helped craft the pilot program rules and has been part of the conversations to update the regulations.

“I think everyone agrees we want to do some tuning, and that’s exactly what this pilot program allows us to do,” Heard said, adding decisions will be driven by data.

He said the utility of scooters is evidenced by the 230,000 monthly scooter rides that have occurred in the city since the beginning of the pilot program.

“I don’t think many people who are enjoying their scooter [are] picking up the phone to thank the mayor’s office for allowing these options,” he said. “They’re voting with their usage.”

But many San Antonians’ embrace of electric scooters does not negate the list of concerns that have “exploded to a level that potentially compromises pedestrian safety, creates congestion on sidewalks, and even impedes the City’s ability to effectively clean the sidewalks,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement Tuesday.

The Council will consider updates to the pilot program on Feb. 14.

“I am confident that we can develop regulations that protect pedestrians and drivers,” said Nirenberg, “while enabling e-scooters and e-bicycles to remain a viable form of transportation.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.