New scooters take to Edinburg streets

EDINBURG — Residents here woke up Monday to find a fleet of 125 light-blue electric scooters posted on street corners and sidewalks throughout the city.

The scooters are owned and operated by Blue Duck, a San Antonio-based scooter rental company that just began a six-month pilot program to operate in Edinburg this week.

To find out how the scooters actually work, The Monitor took to the streets on one of the new scooters Thursday afternoon.

To use a scooter, we downloaded the Blue Duck app, created an account and entered a credit card number. At two-and-a-half stars on the Apple App Store, the app doesn’t have consistently great reviews, but we had no problems downloading or using it.

The app displays where available scooters can be found, boundary lines for where the machines can be used and a wallet that can be filled from your credit or debit card.

It also displays tips on how to use the scooters and safety warnings, recommending helmets and recommending to not text while scooting.

Blue Duck charges a $5 deposit fee when you sign up, $1 every time you rent a scooter and a quarter every minute you have one checked out. Essentially, an hour on a scooter will run you $16.

Edinburg City Hall has one of the highest concentrations of scooters in the city, so we headed that way, arriving to find Edinburg resident Javier Covarrubias messing around on one of the scooters with his family.

He said it was the second time they’d ridden one that week.

“We came the first day they put them out,” Covarrubias said. “We’ve just been going around the block. We don’t want to be around too many vehicles.”

Covarrubias said he and his family will likely be back again in a few days.

“It’s still fun here around the block,” he said. “They’re fun, they’re entertaining. It’s a good pastime.”

Figuring that if Covarrubias could handle a scooter, we could too. So this writer picked one out from a row lined up on the sidewalk, typed the scooter’s ID number into the app, snapped up the kickstand and gingerly stepped on, and pressed forward on the throttle.

Nothing happened.

The timer on the app was ticking away, but the scooter didn’t budge. After waiting a moment, putting a boot down and pushing forward, the scooter hummed to life and jetted down Seventh Avenue.

The scooters aren’t particularly hard to use, although potholes and railroad tracks can jolt you some, and this writer did have a hard time gauging a couple of the narrower turns I made. At 15 miles per hour, the scooters go at a pretty good clip, but not at an unsafe speed.

Overall, the experience was comparable to riding a bicycle, just a lot less work.

Regarding the attention they receive, there was rarely a dull moment riding the scooter through town.

Standing about 7 feet tall on the scooter, this writer was taller than most of the cars passing by. One woman checking her mail scowled when waved at, and when riding down a back alley past a man taking out his trash, he stopped in his tracks and stood still, staring.

Most people, however, didn’t pay me much attention.

The map on the Blue Duck app clearly delineates where the scooters can and cannot be ridden. Most places in Edinburg proper are fair game to ride, but the Hidalgo County Courthouse, the Dustin Sekula Memorial Library and the entirety of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus are shaded in red and bordered by a bright red line.

Alec Martinez, Blue Duck government partnerships manager, says it’s common for universities to be somewhat opposed to the scooters.

“The audience that’s been the most resistant to scooters has been college campuses,” he said. “We operate in a few different cities in Texas, each of them having their own universities, and only one or two of them have been willing to allow them on campus.”

Martinez said approving scooters on campus usually requires approval from the board of regents, which can be difficult to obtain. He said UTRGV also had some specific reasons for prohibiting the scooters.

“As for UTRGV, they mentioned that they’d recently gone through a bike sharing process with the Lower Rio Grande Development Council, and were still kind of spinning from that and didn’t want to bite off more than they could chew,” he said. “In addition to that, they were constructing a pretty robust pedestrian loop to go around the campus. They said at the point that construction is completed they would be open to revisiting some sort of partnership with us.”

The app is supposed to warn you when you’ve crossed into a prohibited zone, and the scooter gradually came to a stop about 30 seconds after crossing the line.

Blue Duck scooters sit ready for rental Thursday outside Edinburg City Hall. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Curious to see how local business owners felt about the scooters, the next stop was Grind Coffee Co., just down from city hall.

Owner Maryann Pinon said that she’d rented one Monday, and that she was a fan.

“I thought they were pretty cool. The day they came out, me and my friend rented them and drove around the area,” she said. “It was a really fun activity to do, and it was nice, cause there are a lot of cool historic buildings in the area, and we were able to really capture the scenery as opposed to just driving by. It was a different way to see the city.”

Pinon said she’ll likely find herself renting a scooter again in the future.

“Truthfully, I was telling my friend, I would probably just use them to unwind after work, chill out and cruise around for a bit, especially if the weather’s really nice,” she said.

Martinez said it’s common for people to casually give the scooters a try the first week they show up.

“What tends to happen in communities we serve, there’s a period of recreational activity, people on them for the novelty because they’re brand new,” he said. “After the novelty has sort of worn off, you have people who really need them for transportation purposes really start to use them on a regular basis. We really hope to encourage that.”

According to Martinez, Blue Duck tries to make itself more appealing for regular use through access programs for veterans, students and lower income individuals that can be applied to on the Blue Duck website.

“Depending on which one you’re in, you can get up to a 50% discount for riding,” he said. “In a place like Edinburg, throughout the whole border region, you’ve got nearly triple the poverty rate than the rest of the country, so we really want to get households who are depending on one car or who don’t have a car to use these programs.”

Martinez also said the company tries to encourage utilitarian scooter use by analyzing data.

“We really hope to be a transportation solution, and so as we begin to get more and more data about where people are going and where they are coming from, we are able to cater to the population of Edinburg,” he said. “We can see the areas that are having repeat rides, so if we’re getting a few dozen rides every day at 5 o’clock, 5:30, going to various neighborhoods, we want to maintain and encourage those routes, by putting more scooters in those areas and giving that data to the city.”

Presently, it’s unclear what usage patterns will ultimately emerge in Edinburg, Martinez said.

“Every city tells a different story,” he said. “In Laredo, they’re really trying to revitalize their downtown, so what you have, especially on Friday evenings, is this white-hot line of people going from the suburbs to downtown to drink, because it’s cheaper that way and they can Uber back. In Edinburg, we don’t know yet. It remains to be seen.”

Half-a-dozen little clumps of scooters were seen parked around town, many of them with uncertain-looking scootists trying out the program.

“You can’t stop the scooter love, no way, no how,” Martinez laughed about the program’s early popularity.

Although Blue Duck’s future in Edinburg is still somewhat ambiguous, Martinez said he’s confident the company will be sticking around.

“What we anticipate, as has happened in every community that we operate in, is that six months will go by, and then policy makers and city staff will pull police reports. Council members will talk to constituents, the people they represent. Hospital logs, all of that stuff,” he said. “At the six-month point, it’ll be sort of put up to the jury, and after that it’ll be up to council as to whether they want to continue or not.”

Details on Blue Duck, its scooters and how to use them are available at www.flyblueduck.com.

mwilson@themonitor.com