As best I can tell, Bird scooters resemble their namesakes insofar as they look like ashen, emaciated carcasses of storks when they are perched on sidewalks, often to the surprise of unsuspecting pedestrians. This morning, I left my apartment at an unusually early hour and was greeted by a downright Hitchcockian sight: an flock of six of them on my doorstep where, the previous evening, there had been nothing.
One can only imagine the journeys they took, winging their way through the Westside, until coming to roost again.
Bird is based in, and was first deployed in, Santa Monica. It has spread to San Diego and elsewhere, and, with a fresh $15 million of capital, more cities are to come. Bird’s careers page lists 13 major cities nationwide where they're hiring. This invasion presents a moral quandary. I want to hate them. They are annoying and juvenile in the way that all “disruptive” technologies are annoying and juvenile. But I find myself oddly attracted to them.
At their best, Birds are yet another weapon in the war against the “first-mile, last-mile” problem -- and an especially effective one at that. They have evolved from the Precambrian species of bike share, by which ugly, heavy bicycles are made available at docking stations. I like bike share, partly because the docks create a sense of place. But, let’s face it, they’re hard to ride, and they aren’t always where you want to be.
Bird scooters are more directly descended from dockless bike share, in which bikes are locked to themselves and located via app and GPS, thus making them footloose. Dockless bikes have proliferated in China where, with competing companies operations semi-legally in the public realm, they have devolved into nuisances in many cities.
Bird improves on this model in a few ways. Most notably, its scooters are motorized, so they can whisk travelers along sidewalks and roads effortlessly. They also solve the eternal sartorial predicament of bicycles. By enabling riders to stand up, they don’t muss one’s clothing. They’re lightweight and, as noted, conveniently thin, so they can maneuver in tight spaces and park just about anywhere.
Lithe as they may be, the scooters travel up to 15 miles per hour and have ranges over 30 miles. Bird resorts to crowd-sourcing to charge and rebalance them every night. I guess I have a neighbor who’s signed on.
For all of these reasons, electric scooters like Birds (and a forthcoming competitor from Limebike, a Chinese dockless bike share company) might be the perfect first-mile, last-mile mode of transportation. My apartment is, for instance, a 5-minute Bird ride to the 720 bus, one of the most heavily traveled bus line in California. You can hop off the Expo Line and on to a Bird and get clear across Santa Monica — roughly three miles square — in 15 minutes.
Let us count the ways in which Bird scooters offend the sensibilities and violate the law (aside from inviting avian puns).
- Woe to the wheelchair-bound pedestrian who encounters a “parked” scooter in a sidewalk. I’ve already tossed a few ADA-noncompliant scooters out of the way, but many disabled people will not be so adept. This is one detriment unlikely to be considered by the proverbial 25-year-old aspiring tech billionaire.
- Svelte as they are, scooters threaten to turn into visual blight if and when they become too plentiful in high-traffic areas. It’s worth noting that Lime scooters aren’t nearly as skeletal as Birds are.
- Scooters beg for violations of the law, including regulations that prohibit riding on sidewalks in certain cities.
- A sticker on each Bird scooter reminds riders that they’re required to wear helmets. By my casual count roughly 0 percent of riders comply. So, who’s liable when someone cracks his head on the pavement?
- By what rules of God and humanity drivers supposed to follow if they encounter scooters in the street?
As an anarchic element of urbanism, the problems Birds pose are mostly minor and probably correctable. But they should not be allowed to fly under the radar, as so many other “disruptive” services have done. The spats between Uber and city governments have become legendary, as arrogance has run headlong into bureaucracy. The same goes for Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber. Bird is already getting into it with the City of Santa Monica (and losing), and San Diego seems none-too-pleased.
Unlike some of those companies, though, Bird seems to have benign origins. Founder Travis VanderZanden left Uber (and previously Lyft) and says he was motivated more by the chance to provide mobility to the masses than by the potential for profit. Quite un-Kalinack of him.
As for urban planners: scooter-share presents either a revelation warranting the wholesale redesign of the pedestrian realm or yet another bauble.
The former scenario may seem extreme, but it goes to one of the core questions of planning: do planners plan cites according to their best principles and let people and technologies make the most of that framework? Or do they accommodate and try to capitalize on new technologies? In terms of transportation, the most extreme example of the former approach would be a subway. The most extreme example of the latter: the automobile.
If scooters proliferate, planners have all the more reason to reclaim pavement from cars, creating more sidewalks, bike lanes, or, indeed scooter lanes. Scooters might warrant further transit investments as they widen the traditional walk-sheds of transit stops. They might influence parking requirements and warrant the conversion of on-street parking spaces into scooter corrals. Or maybe they’re benign enough, and our existing streetscapes accommodating enough, that we can indeed let them evolve organically and not freak out about them.
As Richard Sennett notes in his forthcoming book Building and Dwelling, "every innovation suffers by definition from a mismatch between the ways people currently do things and the way they might do things." And, of course, innovations keep coming, some improving on previous iterations, some neutralizing them, some proving that the previous innovations weren't so innovative after all.
Really, the best response might be to sit tight, let Bird do its thing, and wait for the arrival of flying cars.