AUSTIN — Scooters and rideshare are changing life in the city, and cities and tech companies should work together to solve the challenges of the nascent sharing economy.

That was the consensus Saturday at a sharing economy-centered talk Saturday at the Texas Tribune Festival that included Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3). Also on the panel were Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk, Lyft Director of Public Policy April Mims, and Bird Senior Director of Public Affairs Ashwini Chhabra.

“Urban tech is a sector that is here, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s really changing the way we live our lives,” said moderator Steven Pedigo, who directs the Urban Lab at The University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

“At Lyft we really see ourselves as a complement to the existing transportation system,” Mims said. “We are really thinking about what is the future of mobility.”

San Antonio’s response to the sharing economy has ebbed and flowed since the arrival of Uber and Lyft in 2013 and the beginning of the short-term rental industry. The rideshare companies were met with staunch opposition by a majority of the City Council, which caused them to voluntarily cease local operations after they deemed the regulations draconian.

But the City would later welcome the two companies back with a relaxing of the local laws and has since worked to build relationships with rideshare providers, scooter-share companies, and short-term rental platforms.

The patchwork of laws from city to city has prompted a number of legislative interventions at the state level. Laws have been enacted regulating the rideshare industry, overriding municipal ordinances and stripping cities’ abilities to oversee ridesharing as they see fit.

Viagran said the loss of local control, due to state legislation, could continue to be a factor in creating a highly functional regulatory environment.

“Every city is different,” she said. “Even for San Antonio and Austin, it’s such a different situation, so it’s important that cities are working hand in hand with these companies.”

At San Antonio City Hall, the past year has been dominated by debate on how to regulate the scooter-share industry, which has brought the spotlight to mobility issues in the city while also creating sidewalk clutter and public safety hazards.

The City began testing regulation with a months-long pilot program last fall, but as scooter-related injuries have ratcheted up and complaints about scooters strewn about the city became more rampant, the Council toughened its up-until-then loose regulations. The City enacted a curfew so that riding would not take place after 11 p.m., which the City credits for lowering the reported number of accidents. It also began increasing its enforcement of its rules for how scooters can be parked and where they can be ridden.

At its peak, San Antonio’s electric vehicle fleet rose to 16,100 permitted e-bikes and e-scooters. In anticipation of a contraction to just 5,000 scooters among three authorized companies (there are currently six), the City reduced the number of vehicles permitted to companies with larger local fleets. The local scooter count now stands at more than 6,000.

The City Council is set to vote in either October or November to select three scooter-share vendors. Active companies Bird, Lime, Lyft, Razor, and Spin have applied as have Veoride, Frog, Ojo, and Wheels Labs.

That contraction will allow the City, as well as the authorized companies, to be nimbler in response to issues caused by e-scooters, said Chhabra, with Bird.

“That’s how you address 12 companies and more than 16,000 scooters – is to sort of rein it in,” he said. “And you can only do that if you’re really nimble.”

As the sharing economy evolves companies are realizing the importance of working with cities and other local governments, Chhabra said.

“Riders aren’t our only customers,” he said. “Your customers are the people who ride on your vehicles. They’re the people who stay in your offices or in your homes. They’re also the third parties that you rely on – so the people who are charging your scooters, and the drivers who are driving their cars, and the people who are sharing their homes. But they’re also – and this might be one of the most important customers – they’re also cities.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

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