Bird Scooters: Public Nuisance or The Future of Transit?


The following post is by Kevin Herrera,  sr. marketing & communication manager for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. It originally appeared on Santa Monica Centric.

Downtown seems to be littered with them. On almost every street corner you can find a Bird scooter. Pull out your smartphone and for less than what you would spend on a cup of coffee you can unlock one and zip around town on these motorized scooters. Once you’ve reached your desired destination you can simply stop and walk off, leaving the scooter wherever you please.

And therein lies the problem.

The City of Santa Monica, after numerous warnings and citations, has filed a criminal complaint against the parent company of the Bird scooters, charging Bird Rides, Inc. and its founder, Travis VanZander, a veteran of Silicon Valley’s ride-share startup culture, with violating several city ordinances, including operating a business without a license or vending permit, and leaving the scooters unattended on public property. There have been numerous complaints of the scooters being left in front of doorways, in the middle of driveways and on wheelchair ramps.

Concerns about public safety and a lack of compliance by riders of Department of Motor Vehicles regulations are also being raised by city officials, who feel it is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed by a reckless Bird rider not complying with established laws governing motorized scooters. On Jan. 9 a woman reportedly ran into a car and suffered minor head trauma.

Rules of the Road

You can only ride if you have a valid driver’s license or instruction permit.
Wearing a helmet is required for all ages.
You must ride by yourself, and not with any passengers.
You must ride on the road, never on the sidewalk.
You may not park on the sidewalk in the way of pedestrian traffic.
You must not ride at night unless the motorized scooter is equipped with proper lighting equipment, including a front light source which is visible from the front and sides, and reflectors.

The enforcement action puts the city in an awkward position. On one hand city officials are enthusiastically supportive of alternative modes of transportation, encouraging residents and visitors to leave their cars at home and instead take the Expo Line, bike or walk. The Bird scooters have undoubtedly cut down on car trips. However, by operating without proper authorization, the city has no choice but to crack down.

“One cannot deny (the Bird scooters) are being used by a lot of people … so they could be reducing congestion and helping the economy of downtown,” said Francie Stefan, the City’s Mobility Division manager. “But it has to be done in a way that doesn’t endanger people and has to be a system with built-in safety features, and it just doesn’t do that right now.”

VanZander told Downtown Santa Monica, Inc., which works with the City of Santa Monica, property owners and businesses to manage and promote the downtown, that he is “committed to working with the City of Santa Monica and local stakeholders to fulfill our mission to provide safe, reliable last mile electric transportation to everyone.”

City officials said if Bird is “prepared to operate safely and within the bounds of the law, the city stands ready to engage with Bird leadership and work with them.”

The criminal complaint is expected to be heard before a judge in early February.

Bird is just one player in a rapidly emerging market in which GPS and mobile technologies have merged to create a new mode of transportation. Whereas current bike-share systems installed by cities and counties across the U.S. and abroad, such as Santa Monica’s Breeze bike share (commonly referred to as the “Hulu bikes” because of the video-on-demand streaming service’s sponsorship) are based on stationing bikes at specific locations or “docks,” Bird and others like LimeBike, Spin, MoBike and Ofo do not, allowing users to open an app, find a bike nearest them and then drop them off wherever they please when they’re finished. No docks or other expensive infrastructure necessary.

Customers also pay a significantly cheaper rate, sometimes as little as $1 a ride compared to $7 an hour for Breeze. (Breeze does offer monthly and yearly plans that give members 90 minutes of ride time a day, and there are more affordable rates for students. For more information visit SANTAMONICABIKESHARE.COM)

Transportation experts believe this new dock-less model has the potential to significantly boost bike travel and extend the use of public transit systems already in place. They say these systems help to solve the first-, last-mile barrier. Studies have shown that the average person will not want to walk more than a mile (most people in the U.S. are down to a quarter mile) before reaching a bus stop or rail line station. Civic leaders are encouraging more housing and jobs to be located near mass transit. Making it more convenient for people to get to a rail or bus stop without driving has the potential to increase ridership and cut down on harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s a really exciting time for transportation,” said Gabe Klein, former commissioner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C. departments of transportation where he launched two of the first and largest bike-share systems in the U.S. Klein is also the co-founder of CityFi, which advises cities on transportation and new technology integration. “If cities and business improvement districts can harness the power of innovation and the spirit of entrepreneurship, that can translate into big benefits for everybody. You can only fit so many people in cars. You need high capacity transit and new solutions.”

A recent study said Los Angeles had the world’s worst traffic in 2016, with LA area motorists spending an average of 104 hours stuck in traffic that year. This resulted in the loss of $2,408 in wasted fuel per driver. Then there’s the mental and physical costs, as well as lost productivity. Traffic congestion is expected to cost Americans $186 billion in direct and indirect losses in 2030.

The convenience and flexibility of the dock-less model have city planners, elected officials and businesses worried.

Blocking the public right of way, riding without a helmet, traveling at high speeds and not following traffic laws can endanger riders and pedestrians. Leaving the bikes and scooters behind also clogs sidewalks and bike racks.

Perhaps you’ve seen the photos coming out of China featuring hundreds of bikes stacked on top of one another at busy intersections, creating a tangled mound of metal blocking access to subway entrances.

Whereas Bird took an aggressive and ultimately illegal approach, LimeBike, now operating in more than 35 markets, including universities and overseas, goes the more traditional route by reaching out to prospective cities and colleges early to strike up a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust — and shared data. LimeBike takes on all liability, agrees on a proper maintenance schedule and operations plan, and makes available data collected from each ride, which can then be used by cities to inform decisions on where bus should travel or where to install new bike lanes. It could also help dock-based system operators working in partnership with cities to relocate their infrastructure to underserved areas.

“We share how dock-less systems can improve mobility for residents, how we operate, how we help to create jobs in their communities and how we can really solve that first-, last-mile dilemma,” said Sam Dreiman, manager of strategic development for LimeBike. “Our company is committed to sharing data with cities because we want to help cities build out better transportation and mobility infrastructure plans. The way to do that is to see where people are riding and why they are riding.”

Education is the key for any system. And not just informing people on how to sign up, but more importantly how to ride properly and safely, which should address the poor parking habits of some riders. Just as people have been taught the rules of the rode in driver’s ed class, bike share operators have to drill into the minds of their customers proper etiquette when it comes to bike-share systems.

“It’s about having people view bike share as something they value and respect,” said Mary Caroline Pruitt, who handles marketing and communication for LimeBike. “You are not going to park your car in the middle of the [driving] lane. We think with time and education, there will be a greater appreciation for bike sharing and people will respect it like it was their own bike.”

LimeBike has local street teams that are constantly on the move, checking bikes to make sure they are safe to ride and are not parked in precarious positions. (For a laugh, check out the Twitter handle @DocklessBike.) There is a 24-hour hotline to register complaints, and anyone can text to report issues. Teams typically respond within two hours. Bikes reported as being damaged are placed in a maintenance mode and cannot be ridden.

There is also a geo-fencing capability to mark off areas where the bikes cannot be parked. If someone does decide to go against the app’s recommendation for parking safely, the street team is notified and moves the bike to a designated parking area. Responsible riders will soon be rewarded for good behavior, and LimeBike is flirting with the idea of paying riders to take bikes parked in poor areas to safe zones.

In Singapore, dock-less parking areas are painted on the pavement of wider sidewalks, making it easier to find a proper place to park. Five companies recently signed agreements with that city stating they would geo-fence their bikes so they could only be parked in designated areas.

“Companies that are completely disregarding cities will not be successful, nor should cities completely disregard them,” Klein said. “Bird scooters surprises me. That model of just dumping your product in a city and seeing what happens is really outdated. Santa Monica has some very innovative people willing to create that sandbox where you can work with companies to address public safety, security and to make sure benefits are being provided to citizens and not just private companies. There needs to be a relationship and some understanding. By creating unnecessary battlegrounds nobody wins.”

In Seattle, where the city’s dock-based system was disbanded early last year, city transportation officials worked closely with LimeBike and others to create a permitting system in which a set number of bikes are rolled out initially. Testing is done to determine need, which in turn informs supply. Dock-less bike companies are allowed to place 500 bikes around the city. If the first month goes well, companies can add another 500, then 1,000 more in another four weeks.

“When you think about thousands of bikes on a street, and people can finish their ride and place it almost anywhere — surprisingly it has not been that bad,” Seattle Department of Transportation communications director Mafara Hobson told CNN. “Instead of letting new technologies come in an infiltrate the city, where we have to bend to how these companies work, we’re trying to get in front of the technology instead.”

While the City of Santa Monica is open to discussing the possibility of a pilot program for a dock-less system, currently local transportation officials are focused on integrating Breeze bike share with like systems at UCLA, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills to create a unified network on the Westside. That would extend the range of Breeze and possibly entice more people to sign up. That could mean more revenue and fewer car trips. The systems could be integrated as early as March.

There is also talk of bringing electric bikes into the Breeze fleet so that people can go further without worrying about getting sweaty before an important meeting or date night.

So far it doesn’t appear that Bird’s presence in Santa Monica has impacted Breeze ridership. Growth has remained steady year over year. It’s flattened somewhat, but that could be because of a recent glitch that has since been remedied, or a reaction to the Metro bike-share system coming online. The Breeze system, when factoring in the Hulu sponsorship and fees, is operating in the black.

The same can’t be said for many of the dock-less systems, which are running on venture capital. Inevitably some companies will fold or get swallowed up by competitors. In China, a few companies expanded too rapidly, lost money and went bankrupt. This forced cities to collect millions of bikes, which ended up in cycle graveyards.

(Photograph: Chen Zixiang for the Guardian)

Kyle Kozar, who manages the Breeze system for the city, says the system is really a hybrid. Riders can choose to lock a Breeze bike to a dock, or for an extra fee, leave the bike within the system’s coverage area like a dock-less bike. It gives the rider some flexibility.

“Dock-less is 100 percent reliant on the app, which may not have the best GPS capabilities, making it challenging to find a bike,” Kozar said. “And then there are those bikes that are left in precarious places. With Breeze you have the best of both worlds. You don’t necessarily have to have the app to find a bike because we have set locations.”

Introducing dock-less systems in cities where bike-share like Breeze currently exists can help fill gaps in the system. However, the technology is so new there isn’t enough data to make a definitive claim that they can work in tandem. LimeBike’s representatives are all in, and believe sprawling cities like LA would benefit the most. Klein, who lives in D.C. and takes both the cities dock-based bikes and dock-less, believes they can. Kozar isn’t as confident, however, he sees the benefit in introducing more options.

“If anything, it’s a good thing to provide people with more choices to increase mode shift,” Kozar said. “Ultimately that’s the goal of all these programs, to just get more people riding bikes or the bus, scooters, whatever, just as long as they aren’t in a (car) to go to the grocery store.”


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