Sunday afternoons on the Venice boardwalk are chaotic, with neighbors, artists, Angelenos, and tourists talking, trading, and traveling up and down the beachfront. Bikes, skateboards, and Segways continuously stream by on the winding two-lane path.
Recently, a different vehicle has dominated the road. This past Sunday, anybody planted in a beach chair, looking back towards the boardwalk, would have seen a parade of Bird scooters roll by, accompanied by the faint hum of electric motors.
Since the Santa Monica-based company began operating on September 1, placing hundreds of scooters on the city’s sidewalks, Bird has quickly become ubiquitous in Venice and Santa Monica. But the startup’s rapid growth and dockless technology has already set the small scooters on a collision course with local regulators.
In December, the city of Santa Monica filed a criminal case against the company, accusing it of operating without proper permits and owing more than $6,000 in fines. On Wednesday, it agreed to pay more than $300,000 as part of a settlement with the city; it also agreed to “run a weeklong public safety education campaign on the Big Blue Bus.”
“Santa Monica is a multi-modal city focused on carbon reduction,” city spokersperson Constance Farrell says. “We’re supportive of… the concept of Bird. They just need to operate lawfully and safely.”
Bird claims the Chinese-made electric scooters are an innovative, convenient, and more sustainable solution to last-mile travel. Being easy-to-operate scooters, they’re pretty fun to ride.
“Our mission is to get people out of cars,” says spokesperson Marcus Reese.
The company would not provide an accounting of the number of Bird’s on the road, though estimates suggest its more than 1,000 scooters.
But early reactions from riders suggest its catching on. Their slim profiles stream up and down the retail and restaurant corridors of Abbot-Kinney and Rose Avenue, circle the tech offices of Silicon Beach, and dart throughout downtown Santa Monica. Sidewalks and side streets are filled with the scooters, since the dockless vehicles, locked and unlocked with an app, can be dropped off and picked up anywhere.
Bird now claims more than 40,000 active users and has started expanding, with small trials in Brentwood and on the UCLA campus as well as Pacific Beach in San Diego. On Tuesday, it announced $15 million in additional funding, suggesting its plans for expansion to other cities are on track.
While small in stature, the scooters seemed poised to follow the path of the big ride-sharing companies, growing as fast as they can, and letting regulations and precedent play catch up.
In the last few weeks, Santa Monica police have started being more aggressive, ticketing riders who scoot by on sidewalks instead of streets and bike lanes, or those without helmets.
Farrell says the company only had a license to operate a brick-and-mortar location when it first started placing scooters out in September.
Some early riders, especially those younger than 18, were violating state safety laws. Upon a referral from the City’s Code Enforcement Division, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Bird on December 6 for operating a commercial scooter rental business on the public right of way without a proper business license and failing to comply with administrative citations.
The city has since worked with the company to institute measures to improve performance and safety, and deal with right-of-way issues when users ride them on the sidewalks, leading up to today’s announcement that Bird agreed to pay $6,115.63 in previously issued citations, pay additional fines and investigative costs totaling $300,000, and run a week-long safety campaign on the city’s Big Blue Bus.
Over the weekend, only a handful of the dozens of Bird riders spotted on the streets and sidewalks of Venice and Santa Monica wore helmets. A plane pulling a banner with the Bird logo that read “Ride Safely” circled around the beach. Most users, while cruising the beach in a perfectly safe and orderly fashion, either didn’t notice it or ignored it.
“I’m a scooter girl now! Hurry @anniesoml take my picture before I get hit by a car” • For those of you in west LA who haven’t tried @bird scooters: I highly recommend you download the app & do it immediately. They are these electric scooters that are sort of like City bikes but you just jump on and ride wherever you want and drop it off in any location when you are finished. There isn’t a particular place you pick them up but you can find them scattered on the sidewalks around Santa Monica or just check the map on the app. They go pretty fast and are definitely the most fun way to get around town. Use my bird code of DVERN to get a free 20$ ride. 20$ goes a long way! • Btw: this is not even a sponsored post. I just love them. • Enjoy & your welcome!! • #santamonica #bird #birdscooter #birdscooters #losangeles
A post shared by ⚡️ (@electricshelbyshocks) on Nov 13, 2017 at 2:31pm PST
Bird founder Travis VanderZanden, who has spent years with tech and transportation companies as both the first COO of Lyft and as VP of driver growth for Uber, has taken the dockless biking model and, in the parlance of tech, “removed friction.”
Rides are quick and easy, with little to no physical effort involved. They’re relatively cheap, at $1 per ride, plus 15 cents per minute, and while they may not be fast enough or convenient enough for a daily commute (they max out at 15 miles per hour), the ubiquity and ease of use make it incredibly easy to use for a quick errand or trip.
The prices compares favorably to single rides on existing bike-share systems, such as Breeze Bikes ($3.50 for 30 minutes) or Metro Bikes ($3.50 for each trip of 30 minutes or under and then $3.50 per additional 30 minutes), though both bike systems have membership plans that make the per-ride cost more affordable.
Perhaps the most interesting innovation may be how they’re powered every night. In addition to employing teams to pick up and charge the scooters every night (which have a max 15-mile range), users can sign up to charge them at home, and get paid in cash and credit ($5 per scooter). Bird has created a quick, easy to administer, decentralized, electric transit option. Having used the scooters on-and-off for the last month, I would say it’s easy to find one when you need it.
The company has also been aggressive when it comes to expansion. The Washington Post revealed that VanderZanden initially contacted Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer via LinkedIn after putting Bird’s on the road.
The mayor, and different members of the Santa Monica government, have complained about Birds, including rider citations and eight related accidents that required responses from the fire department. One woman seriously injured her head earlier this year, according to Farrell, and the city is concerned about people seeing them as toys as opposed to vehicles that share the road with cars.
Bird claims to be a better partner than other tech companies in the transit space. In addition to paying fines, in response to the safety concerns raised by the city, the app now requires users to scan their driver’s licenses (to verify that they are 18 or older). The sign-up and log-in processes repeatedly tell users to wear helmets and to leave the scooters in convenient places that don’t block pedestrians. Users can also request a helmet, which Bird will mail to them for free (they’ve sent out thousands, says Reese).
The company and the city plan to discuss “the best regulatory regime going forward,” says Reese. “We feel we were legally licensed from the beginning, and oftentimes technology moves faster than government, and when new things are introduced, there isn’t an appropriate regulatory regime. We’re glad to be a partner with the city to figure it out.”
“Santa Monica would like nothing more than to have this type of transportation integrated into its other options,” Farrell says. “A robust transportation infrastructure is better for everyone.”
Reese wouldn’t comment on any new expansion plans for the company. But with the $15 million recently raised from venture capital firms such as Craft Ventures, Tusk Ventures, Valor, Lead Edge Capital, and Goldcrest Capital, it’s quickly becoming a leader in a space poised to crowd streets and sidewalks across the country. Both Spin and LimeBike, two dockless bike startups, have announced plans to add the service.
Reese says the company plans to expand safely: “One rider without a helmet is one rider too many.” And, anyways, he says, the real danger is the cars on the road.