An Unfair Birden?

Seems like a good idea.

Eliminating automobile trips under two miles in length would be an enormously positive change. Moving people around electrically instead of with fossil fuels would be an enormously positive change. Getting people out of cars and onto their feet would be an enormously positive change.

That’s why at first blush so-called “last mile” transportation providers, like the electric scooter and bike companies Bird and Lime, appear to be beneficial innovators. Bird recently attracted $150 million in capital from investors,who value the company at more than $1 billion. Silicon Valley and Wall Street say this is the next Uber or Lyft. But you drive yourself.

How does Bird work? They unload — dump? — hundreds of electric scooters on city sidewalks, scattering them around town like mechanical litter. Users unlock the simple machine with an app. In Los Angeles, they cost 15-cents a minute to rent. Top speed is about 10mph. There are no “hubs” or “racks,” as with bike-shares. Users leave the scooter where it is when they’re done. Users are supposed to supply their own helmet, ride in bike lanes whenever possible, and stay off sidewalks.

Even if most riders complied with the “rules” — and they don’t, of course — the problem with scooter-sharing, at least in this early stage, is the same problem most cities have with unlicensed street vendors, unlicensed concert givers, and anyone else who wishes to use the public rights-of-way for their commercial business: Private enterprise doesn’t belong on public property. Bird’s CEO has penned an open letter to his fellow last-mile honchos calling for them to join him in “S.O.S.,” saving our sidewalks. This, he asserts, can be accomplished by doing daily pickups, growing responsibly, and kicking back $1-a-day-per-scooter to every city government that allows them free run.

His plan might have merit. But it’s hard to see how our sidewalks get “saved” by having hundreds of scooters parked on them throughout the day. (In Los Angeles, at least, Bird scooters are usually found leaning on buildings or abandoned on a sidewalk corner.)

Bird and their cohorts are clearly ahead of the regulatory curve, and for that we congratulate them. They’ve figured out how to exploit public resources before the public properly understands how to manage them. Think early days of bottled water. Soon, though, municipalities will begin cracking down, no matter how much the masses like zipping around on two wheels. Indeed, Indianapolis has already ordered Bird and Lime to cease and desist operations until the City Council votes on how much to charge the companies for the privilege of using their streets.

We think it would be a shame to lose an excellent transportation option. So we’re hoping city governments don’t put Bird out of business. We’re also hoping they can find a business model that doesn’t involve spewing their inventory on every available paved surface.

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1 Response

  1. Chris says:

    I have seen the bikes in West Hollywood but not the scooters. All new ideas take tweaking.