E-scooter riders have returned to San Antonio’s downtown streets in numbers surpassing pre-pandemic levels. But the city made it clear this month that now is not the time to increase the number of scooters on the road.

Bird, one of the city’s two contracted scooter-share companies, recently asked the city for an increase to its allotted cap of permits, currently set at 1,000. The city’s Center City Development and Operations Department overseeing the scooters said no — or at least, not yet.

“The City has communicated to the dockless vehicles vendors that an increase in the number of permitted vehicles is not supported at this time,” said Laura Mayes, assistant director for government and public affairs, in an email. “Staff will continue to work with the operators to monitor dockless vehicle usage as well as issues related to dockless vehicles, and a request for a fleet increase could be supported in the future.”

Bird and Razor, the scooter-share vendors in San Antonio, are each capped at 1,000 scooters each. That cap is markedly lower than the peak of 16,000 scooters from seven companies that filled San Antonio’s streets a few years ago, following the scooters’ uninvited and initially unregulated entrance into the city.

A pilot program was soon established, but the continuing abundance generated backlash as City Council and other city officials fielded complaints about scooters being driven recklessly and left strewn on sidewalks, where they blocked pedestrians.

In December 2019, the city offered two-year contracts to Bird, Razor, and Lime. Lime withdrew before the contract took effect in January 2020. Each was allotted a 1,000 scooter cap, with the possibility of it being raised at a later point.

As part of the contracts, the companies share revenue with the city, on top of the $10,000 annual permitting fee they pay. The income was meant to overcome the city’s costs in administering the program, which at the time were said to include implementing rider education initiatives, overtime for San Antonio police to enforce scooter laws, staffing costs, and parking infrastructure improvement.

Soon after the agreements went into effect, the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying shutdowns depressed ridership for close to a year. The return of tourists and downtown workers has caused ridership to rebound, along with increased quarterly revenue flowing to the city.

But the recent spike in riders is also reflected in familiar complaints about the scooters. The number of 311 calls about the scooters, which have their own service request category alongside "graffiti" and "property maintenance," has nearly doubled in the past month.

City Council was set last summer to review data collected from rides taken at night relating to crashes, parking violations, and where trips are taken. The coronavirus pandemic caused a delay, and staffers are still working through the data, Mayes said.

Tech Bloc CEO David Heard, whose organization advocates for the local tech sector, has long been supportive of the scooters, which have become a staple of the emerging tech district downtown. He said Bird may "have a point" in trying to increase its cap, since Lime's withdrawal left the city with fewer scooters than City Council intended.

But he also said he sympathized with the city, whose reluctance to bring in more scooters may stem from "scar tissue" left from the scooters' initially haphazard rollout. He also said downtown still lacks good infrastructure for the vehicles.

In a statement, Bird cast itself as a transportation solution and a contributor to the downtown economy.

"As people continue to move about their communities more, we hope the City will allow us to increase the number of electric vehicles we offer to meet demand and further deter car usage in the future," said the company's director of government partnerships, Blanca Laborde, in a prepared statement.

Razor did not respond to requests for comment.

If the city does later open the conversation for more scooters, more players may try to enter the game.

San Antonio’s homegrown scooter company, Blue Duck, was cast out of the contract process in 2019 when it missed the city's filing deadline. Following a high-profile change in management, the company last year made an informal pitch to be allowed back into the city. Blue Duck did not respond to recent inquiries about the pitch or its future plans.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.