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Will Scooters, E-Bikes Thrive in a Post-Pandemic World?

Prior to COVID, San Antonio had allowed as many as 16,000 scooters to operate on city streets but now the allowance has dropped to just 2,000. The scooter industry may be here to stay, but not without change.

(TNS) — On breezy, humid evenings in June 2019, up Houston Street and around Alamo Plaza, giddy hotel guests and roving bands of happy youths on gangly electric scooters both fascinated and angered startled pedestrians.

It was an American urban phenomenon barely a year old — but today, 30 months and one pandemic later, downtown walkers in San Antonio, Texas, no longer need to keep their heads on a swivel for fear of being hit by a hurtling hipster.

The sidewalks are tame again.

Once permitted by the city to have 16,000 vehicles operated by as many as seven scooter companies, the now chastened startup industry is allowed just 2,000 vehicles in town — and far fewer are actually on the streets. Only two California-based companies, Bird and Razor USA, now operate here.

The industry — restrained if not crippled by new regulations across the country, empty college campuses, post-pandemic supply chain problems and fad-weary, more safety-conscious consumers — still seems to be searching for its role in the crowded "micro-mobility" market.

Yet scooters have survived and may still flourish, both here and abroad.

"They will always be viable in San Antonio," said local entrepreneur and inventor Drue Placette, who briefly served as chief technology officer for the wobbly local scooter startup, Blue Duck.

Placette notes that San Antonio, like many large American cities, has not yet solved the "first mile/last mile" hurdle with public transportation, referring to the distance people must go from rail or bus stops to home or work. What goes unsaid is that most auto-dependent Texans are loath to walk almost any distance in heat and humidity.

"And VIA (Metropolitan Transit), bless its heart, doesn't have it figured out, either," he said. "It can still take me up to two hours to make what would be a 15-minute trip in the car."

Scooters will be a long play for investors but are "still evolving" as consumer attitudes shift, Placette said.

"They'll be different two years from now," he said, pointing to Netflix, a company valued at more than $300 billion that was "once just a DVD-by-mail service."

John Jacks, as director of Center City Development and Operations, has served as the city's scooter czar since June 2018, when Bird, without notice or permitting, sprinkled San Antonio sidewalks with dozens of scooters in what early industry promoters often hailed as a bold, "disruptive" business strategy.

While many were intrigued, City Council members were flooded with complaints about newly dangerous sidewalks, arrogant riders and the mechanical litter of abandoned vehicles.

Today, Jacks, an urban planner by training, says scooters are probably here to stay.

"This is just my hunch. I'm not an expert," Jacks said, downplaying his much-praised wrangling of the scooter companies through a temporary permit process to a much less freewheeling permanent ordinance.

Ridership seemed to pick up this year, and downtown tourists who look like they're on their first scooter voyage are again a common sight, he said. But Jacks said he has doubts about the long-term sustainability of the business model amid ongoing "profitability issues."

"You may see more personal scooters not owned by a company," Jacks said. "There will definitely be more micro-mobility options, as cities increase their infrastructure for protected bike lanes and such."

In January 2020, after winning one of San Antonio's coveted operating contracts under the new ordinance, San Francisco-based Lime abruptly changed its mind and pulled out, citing low ridership and increased city fees. The company laid off 14 percent of its workers as it also withdrew from Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego and eight other cities in Europe and Latin America.

This came despite more than 86 million e-scooter rides in 2019, a stunning increase from the 38.5 million in 2018, according to the National Association of City Transportation.

Officials at the other two companies that got city contracts, Bird and Razor USA, did not provide interviews or supply answers to written questions.

Internationally, not all cities saw their scooter fleets go dormant during the coronavirus pandemic. Milan, a global center of fashion and design with 1.3 million people, actually used the crisis to speed up a micro-mobility campaign that added some 3,500 new scooters to its civic fleet and 22 new miles of bike lanes.

Last July, Sevilla, Spain, launched 2,000 new scooters in its first citywide rental program. Tier, the German e-scooter behemoth, has deployed 135,000 e-scooters, e-bikes and e-mopeds across 150 cities in 16 European countries.

Blue Duck launched a pilot scooter program featuring centimeter-level GPS tracking with Dublin City University in 2020, billing itself as the first scooter company on the Emerald Isle.

Blue Duck, which in July 2019 missed by one minute a deadline to file its request-for-proposal application to bid for a San Antonio contract, has focused on college towns, such as Greensboro, N.C., home of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and small cities in Texas and the Southeast, such as Bryan, Corpus Christi and Spartanburg, S.C.

As the scooter world has gone through its inevitable shakeout in San Antonio, which once had more scooters per capita than hipster-rich Portland, Ore., a very old but newly invigorated rival has emerged: the bicycle.

From roughly March 2020, when the pandemic took hold, bicycle sales have rocketed throughout the country, enough so that many bike shops are out of inventory and report long customer waits.

Though the two markets are decidedly different — scooter riders tend to be younger than bicyclists and take shorter trips — many frustrated scooter customers report that they've never felt quite safe on devices that inherently make the rider top-heavy and prone to head-over-handlebar falls.

Engineers say putting the rider seated, lower and between two much larger wheels just naturally produces a more stable and maneuverable ride. Plus, a bicycle can carry more groceries, textbooks or roommates.

"We think of ourselves as complementary markets," said JD Simpson, general manager of BCycle, a company that took over the city's rental bike program once known as San Antonio Bike Share.

BCycle's fleet of 250 bikes — expected to be 300 by 2022 — is now all-electric and pedal-assisted. BCycle is owned by Trek, the venerable Wisconsin bicycle company founded in 1975.

"Are scooters a competitor? In some ways, yes," Simpson said. "But we're all about micro-mobility and having choices. Anything is better than a car."

A longtime cyclist, she helped launch the city's bike-share program in 2010, then assisted in running Austin's bike-share program from 2013 to 2016 before returning.

"Business has been really good in San Antonio. We never closed down in the pandemic," Simpson said. "The mayor agreed with us that we were an essential business."

She declined to offer ridership figures but said comparisons with scooter ridership were flawed because e-bike riders go an average of 5.5 to 6.5 miles per trip, while scooteristas zip less than a mile per journey.

BCycle bikes are legally permitted on all city streets and trails, including the Mission Reach portions of the River Walk, according to Jacks' office. They are Class 1 electric bikes, limited to less than 15 mph, and will travel about 25 miles on a charged battery, Simpson said.

A single trip costs $5 for up to 30 minutes, then a fee per 30 minutes until the bike is docked. Full-day access passes ($15) and annual memberships ($120) are available. BCycle has 47 docking stations, including 15 along the mission trails and two around the Pearl entertainment complex.

E-bikes have increasingly gained street cred with the cycling public, Simpson said.

"In the early stages of bike-share, people used to joke that e-bikes looked like they were only for white men over 55," she said, laughing. "But now so many women use them, I'd say it's 50/50 with men, and the average age of riders is probably under 40."

The largest obstacle to e-bike-share adoption, Simpson said, is not the price, coolness or convenience. It's the same problem any micro-mobility option in San Antonio will face: safety on the city's largely unprotected bike lanes.

"We're fighting the same battles we did 20 years ago," she said. "I love San Antonio. My husband and I came here 25 years ago when we thought we'd only be here six months. People are well-intentioned, but we haven't built the momentum to make real changes in the amount of fully protected bike lanes."

(c)2021 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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