People on scooters ride down Soledad Street.
E-scooter riders travel along Soledad Street downtown. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

After a bumpy introduction to rideshare, San Antonio is approaching the growing popularity of shared e-scooters with greater savvy about new mobility regulation – and about the data e-scooters companies possess.

The City is eyeing such data for enhanced, data-driven planning and policy development. Companies like Bird, Lyft, and Uber collect valuable data such as where users start trips, the duration of their trip, and where they end up, giving insight into how people move around the city and their destinations.

City planners and policy makers say they need the data captured by companies such as Bird and LimeBike to make decisions about where to build transportation infrastructure like bike lanes, sidewalks, and new roads, or to design policies that reduce traffic.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the data the City stands to receive from e-scooter companies is critical for the transformation of downtown San Antonio into a pedestrian-, bike-, and scooter-friendly environment.

“The e-scooters have shown that we have an infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed,” he said. “It’s solvable, and we can use this data to make this city safe and enjoyable from outside a car.”

San Antonio has taken steps to regulate the surge of e-scooters, operating mostly in the city’s urban core. The City is in the process of developing a pilot permit program, which among other things, requires both current and prospective e-scooter companies operating in San Antonio to report data about scooter usage, violations like illegal parking, and trips each month.

Bird, LimeBike, and Blue Duck – the e-scooter companies operating in San Antonio –  have already said they’re willing to share such data with the City, said John Jacks, the director of the Center City Development & Operations (CCDO) department at the City of San Antonio.

“The operating companies have expressed a willingness to share detailed trip data and reports that will help the City understand where and how these vehicles are used,” he said.

Joe Deshotel, Lime’s manager of government relations and community affairs, said that data will be anonymized – meaning information that could identify an individual user is removed from the data – if the City’s permit requires them to do so.

“We anonymize trip data, which we share confidentially with transportation and law enforcement agencies when required by our operating permits,” said Deshotel. “We also share anonymized trip data to better inform those agencies on traffic patterns and our fleet usage, to better manage traffic flow within communities.

With e-scooters, cities across the U.S. have a chance to learn from the regulatory challenges posed by the arrival of rideshare companies.

Like many cities, San Antonio had challenges reaching an agreement with Lyft and Uber that satisfied both safety concerns and a need for data. In 2015, Uber first rejected regulations proposed by the City of San Antonio that required background checks for drivers, drug testing, and a fee charged to rideshare companies based on the number of active drivers. Both Uber and Lyft suspended operations in the city. Later that year, Uber returned to San Antonio after reaching a revised agreement in which drivers were given the option to undergo a fingerprint background check.

Treviño said that the City struggled to obtain data from the rideshare companies, which expressed concern that revealing their data would put them at a competitive disadvantage – but e-scooter operators appear to be more open to supplying data.

“There was some information that Uber and Lyft weren’t willing to share for competitive reasons,” Treviño said. “But we do feel good about getting data from e-scooter [companies] to figure out how we can shape our policy and help programs to lay down smart infrastructure.”

When it comes to handling the big data generated by e-scooters, cities like Los Angeles are leading the charge. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has developed its own data standard, which creates a gateway for the city and companies like Bird or LimeBike to share data. Meanwhile, startups including Populus and Remix are combining data from several new-mobility companies into streamlined dashboards for government clients.

It’s not yet clear whether e-scooter companies will agree to the conditions of the City’s proposed pilot permit program. The CCDO department will present the pilot program to City Council for a vote on Oct. 11.

What is clear, according to Treviño, is that San Antonio needs more high-quality data to deliver services.

“Sharing data is so critical in the ability for the city to provide services,” he said. “This can help us with our infrastructure needs, and where the areas are that we should be putting down sidewalks and bike lanes.

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.