Electric scooters, those dockless little devices suddenly in motion everywhere on the streets and sidewalks of downtown San Antonio, are not the problem.
That statement might come as a surprise to annoyed drivers navigating San Antonio’s crowded downtown streets, or pedestrians on sidewalks brushed back by a near-miss encounter with a thoughtless, speeding scooter rider.
Yet refocusing on the real problem is important as City officials prepare to host a public hearing on scooter regulation this Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers. City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance regulating scooter use on Oct. 4. (Take the City survey on scooter use in English or Spanish.)
There are, of course, plenty of drivers and pedestrians more than a little irritated by the overnight proliferation of hundreds of scooters piloted by people of all ages and skill levels, zipping on and off urban core streets and sidewalks, some without the slightest thought given to the safety of others or themselves. A scooter user suffered a fatal crash in Dallas last week, and one wonders when it will happen here.
It’s a bit crazy out there, so public ire is understandable, yet misdirected.
The micro-mobility revolution, now in its third wave in U.S. cities (bike share followed by ride share followed by scooter share), is disrupting downtown traffic patterns in every major U.S. city where the scooter fleets have found a home, but disruption itself isn’t the problem. Disruption, actually, is a good thing. It signals the arrival of a new technology, a new service, a new solution, that often lays bare previously ignored issues that are the real problem.
This scooter-driven disruption is every bit as real as Uber and Lyft were a few years ago. Scooters offer a low-cost, easy-to-access alternative to get from Point A to Point B without getting in a car and burning carbon, hailing Uber or Lyft, or even breaking a sweat. Demand spikes on weekends when downtown San Antonio resembles an overturned beehive with hundreds of Bird, Lime, and now, Blue Duck scooters in constant motion, visible on every block, often moving faster than congested vehicle traffic.
People aren’t just opting for smart urban transit. They’re also having fun. That sense of liberation and fun is best captured in this scooter send-up video featuring comedic actor Jim Carrey riding a Bird on his way to Jimmy Kimmel Live last week.
While setting out to ride scooters several Saturdays ago, I found myself searching fruitlessly, block after block in the midday heat, finally locating an available unit on East Commerce Street. As I accessed the activation app on my smartphone, a young couple hurriedly approached and offered me $5 to forego my ride and let them have their turn.
“Just keep walking,” I said, “You’ll find one.” As fast as people dismount, it seems, someone else is waiting to take their ride.
So what is the underlying problem? Bike lanes. Or, the lack of bike lanes. San Antonio is in the eighth or ninth year of the Decade of Downtown, depending on how you count it, but the City’s commitment to adding a meaningful network of bike lanes to the urban landscape never came to fruition. Check out the People for Bikes national rankings. You have to scroll through nine screens of big city and small town names before finding San Antonio.
There are hardly any real bike lanes in downtown San Antonio, and not that many in the urban core, period. The bike lanes we have tend to be only blocks long, brief interludes to streets that, outside of downtown, belong to vehicle traffic and are characterized by narrow, poorly maintained sidewalks. Too many San Antonio drivers are unaware that state law and local ordinances require them to “share the road.” Cyclists, scooters, even pedestrians are too often regarded as an intrusion in their space. Road rage is a routine experience.
Scooter riders, in turn – few of whom wear bike helmets – instinctively know they are outmatched on many streets and tend to opt for the safety of sidewalks, some riding recklessly and endangering pedestrians. Most of the scooters do not have rear lights and drivers at dusk find themselves behind scooters they can hardly see.
City leaders and planners in San Antonio should use the advent of electric scooter use here to conduct an honest self-evaluation of its commitment to give citizens a safer streetscape. Smart leaders will devise reasonable safe measures in the short-term, but also think about the city 10, 20, 30 years from now. If the SA Tomorrow plan is ever going to be more than 900 pages sitting on a shelf, City leaders need to make tough decisions now to reshape the urban core we will live and work in decades from now.
Smart cities elsewhere are redesigning their urban cores with the focus on people rather than vehicles. Cars, trucks, and SUVs are not going to disappear, but their users will have to coexist with more mass transit and more micro-mobility options.
A not-so-smart course for San Antonio would be to ignore worsening air quality, growing traffic congestion, the alarming rate of pedestrian-vehicle accidents and fatalities, and the consequences of decades of street engineering focused solely on the flow of vehicle traffic. We now struggle with a massive sidewalk deficit, and too many streets that are unsafe for people moving around outside of cars, trucks, and SUVs.
There are some tentative first steps being taken. City officials have reacted thoughtfully to the micro-mobility revolution this time around, in contrast to the defensive regulatory posture adopted with the advent of ride-share. Some streets now feature bike lanes painted a brightly visible green, although the distances are often measured in blocks and usage remains minimal.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) for several years has been an evangelist for smarter sidewalk construction and maintenance. Click here to download his staff’s “Sidewalkology” paper to get a better sense of their policy proposals. Treviño also is the force behind plans to create a new Pedestrian Mobility advocate on City staff, although the value of that position will depend on whether the person filling the job has a voice in setting policy.
Tech Bloc, which emerged as a formidable political force overnight just a few years ago, was born out of widespread frustration with the City’s initial defense of the legacy taxi industry and opposition to rideshare. We’ve asked its CEO David Heard to weigh in with a commentary in advance of the Oct. 4 vote setting forth its recommendations.
Advocates for smart mobility policies should take the City survey and show up at City Council chambers for the Sept. 12 hearing. Sensible regulations will provide short-term relief to some of the scooter chaos now loose on downtown streets. It will take a much more serious commitment to solve the real underlying problems. So far, San Antonio has not seen leaders willing to give the streets, or at least some of the street, back to the people.