Riders use electric scooters on sidewalks near Main Plaza.
Riders use electric scooters to cross a street near Main Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Reports of accidents involving electric scooters have begun to surface locally as the City Council contemplates how to regulate the shared vehicle services.

Pending a vote slated for Oct. 4, the City of San Antonio wants to set a minimum age for riding e-scooters and restrict where they can be ridden, among other possible regulations.

To date, local e-scooter traffic incidents haven’t been serious enough to warrant much news coverage, but last week a woman was transported to the hospital after losing her balance, falling, and sustaining cuts to the head, according to the San Antonio Fire Department.

Nicholas Ramos said he was struck by an car while riding an e-scooter Thursday, and the driver fled the scene. Ramos said he was riding down Broadway Street when he was clipped from behind by a car. Ramos, who was wearing a helmet, said no one was around when he recovered consciousness a few minutes later. He did not go to the hospital and was “too disoriented” to file a police report after the incident, he said.

The San Antonio City Council’s Transportation Committee met Monday to discuss recommendations that would inform a six-month pilot program for regulating e-scooters. Among the proposals were prohibiting e-scooter use on sidewalks, using bike lanes when available, encouraging but not requiring helmets, and setting the minimum age to 16. A 35 mph speed limit is also proposed.

The recommendations also seek to limit where the vehicles can be parked. For sidewalk parking, the City has endorsed a 3-foot clearance from pedestrian passageways, and 8-foot clearance for bus stop poles and shelters, and a complete prohibition against parking in commercial or pedestrian loading zones. Scooters would also need to be parked at least 8 feet away from a building entrance, according to the recommendations.

Bird scooters are parked near the entrance to Travis Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who chairs the transportation committee, said the Council is seeking a lighter approach to regulating e-scooters. The City was criticized in 2014 for its handling of transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, which caused them to temporarily stop operating in the city. The City is taking the best parts of ordinances in Austin and other cities where scooters have been operational for some time and fusing them together to find a solution, Saldaña said.

“This is a good opportunity for government to step aside and allow the private sector to give us innovative solutions for a public demand,” he said. “The public is demanding a more navigable pedestrian experience.”

Scooter riders shouldn’t be banned from using sidewalks, Saldaña said, adding there are certain parts of the city where scooters should avoid roadways.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4)
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Given how young the technology is, the regulations will be “written in pencil rather than pen,” he said.

E-scooters are powered by electric motors and enabled by smartphone apps. Depending on the company, riders pay a base fee of about a dollar and then are charged for every minute of usage. For the two major operators in San Antonio, LimeBike and Bird, that fee is 15 cents per minute.

Since Bird unleashed its roughly 400-scooter fleet on downtown San Antonio in June, the City has impounded about 140 Bird scooters because they were blocking pedestrian pathways, such as a plaza, accessibility ramp, or building entrance, said John Jacks, director of the Center City Development and Operations Department.

LimeBike launched about a month later with a 345-vehicle fleet. It has had 11 of its scooters seized, Jacks said.

The Center City Development and Operations Department’s parking enforcement team has been confiscating the incorrectly parked scooters and taking them to a garage on St. Mary’s Street. From there, the companies who track their vehicles via GPS can contact the City to retrieve them.

While the City is not charging the scooter companies to retrieve their vehicles, enforcing these parking violations is costing the City time and effort, Jacks said. He said an ordinance will likely comprise a permitting system with a fee to recoup the cost of collecting unauthorized scooters when the company initially applies to be an operator and again for every time the City has to collect a scooter.

Jacks said in the future, the City may contract an organization such as Centro San Antonio to collect scooters.

“What we’re really striving toward is to not collect these – that the companies themselves would be collecting or resetting them,” he said.

Casey Whittington, government affairs representative for operator Blue Duck Scooters, said the local startup supports such regulations.

The e-scooter company, however, has a different model than its competitors for collecting the vehicles at night and deploying them again in the morning. Instead of hiring contractors, known as chargers, to reset its scooter fleet, Blue Duck’s in-house staff picks up the vehicles, inspects them for any damage, and if they are safe enough, releases them the next day.

Blue Duck has a much smaller fleet than the two companies but is aiming to roll out more as its processes are fine-tuned.

Whittington said the company has been working with local officials on crafting regulatory solutions since April and is on board with mandating geofencing, a technology that restricts parking and usage in certain areas through GPS. Certain areas such as Alamo and Main plazas would be fenced off for usage, and certain parts of the sidewalk could also be restricted for parking purposes.

“We want to be the company that’s known for talking with the City daily, which we do,” Whittington said. “We want to be known as the company that [places] more emphasis on safety, and we want to be known as the company that’s better focused on quality, which we think we are.”

David Heard, whose tech-sector advocacy group Tech Bloc played a central role in Uber and Lyft’s 2015 return to San Antonio, said he has been encouraged by the City’s approach to regulating e-scooters and hasn’t seen knee-jerk reactions to the so-far-minor incidents in town.

“It’s always about striking a balance,” Heard said. “There have been some accidents on scooters since they’ve been here, but there will be auto accidents around San Antonio. We don’t make it illegal to drive a car, but we try to put in place licensing and permits and a legal structure that allows for some balance for getting around and safety. That’s the process that’s occurring.”

As for Ramos, he said he was back on an e-scooter Monday. E-scooters, he said, are a great innovation that has come to San Antonio. They have saved him time and money not having to park downtown, he said.

He’s not the only one he knows who has been involved in an accident with a motor vehicle. The Geekdom member said another member of the co-working space landed on the windshield of an automobile as it pulled out in front of him. Ramos said he’s hopeful the City will install more bike lanes – like the ones with green striping on East Houston and Soledad Street – for safer scootering.

“We’ve got to work with the city to improve safety precautions or [limit] street hazards,” he said.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.