Electric Scooters From Ride-Sharing Startup Flood City Streets, Prompting Litigation

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

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— Updated on June 23, 2020

Electric Scooters From Ride-Sharing Startup Flood City Streets, Prompting Litigation

Bird Electric Scooter LitigationIn September 2017, Bird electric scooters began appearing in Santa Monica as part of Bird Rides Inc.’s plan to offer them as ride-sharing vehicles. Residents soon took the company up on the offer, using the scooters to travel instead of relying on cars, buses, bikes, or their own two feet.

But while residents were intrigued by the electric scooters, the city of Santa Monica took a dimmer view. In December 2017, the city attorney’s office filed a nine-count misdemeanor complaint against Bird, claiming the company failed to secure the appropriate business licenses and permits. The complaint also alleged that Bird ignored citations from the city, asking Bird to obtain the proper licenses for its scooters and to remove them from city sidewalks.

In February 2018, Bird pleaded no contest to one infraction of the city’s municipal code. The company also agreed to pay over $300,000 in fines, to get proper business permits, and to conduct a week-long public safety campaign by placing ads on public buses. In exchange, the city agreed to dismiss the nine original misdemeanor counts.

How Bird Scooters Work

The electric scooters are available to anyone ages 18 and older who downloads the Bird app, through which they pay $1 plus 15 cents per minute to use the scooters.

When activated, the app directs users to an available scooter nearby. Users scan the scooter’s Q-code, which tells the app the user is on that particular scooter and allows the app to track mileage.

Users are required by the service’s terms to wear helmets and to keep their speed under 15 miles per hour. They’re also instructed to ride scooters in bike lanes, not on sidewalks, and to park them in places that don’t block sidewalk traffic. In practice, however, the city says that riders did not follow these instructions. Eight Bird rider accidents were reported, including a broken arm and a head injury.

The scooters can travel about 15 miles on each charge, and a network of contractors picks up the scooters for recharging each night. Their short range and relatively slow speeds mean that they’re designed as a “last mile” option for short trips in densely-packed urban areas.

Bird Rides, inc. is headed by chief executive Travis VanderZanden, who helped to lead Uber and Lyft before moving to Santa Monica and launching Bird. The scooters fit in the Uber and Lyft model: alternative forms of transportation organized through a digital app that both takes care of payments and keeps track of riders and conveyances.

During their first few months in Santa Monica, the 1,000 scooters placed throughout the city were used for over 250,000 rides, according to Forbes. The scooters’ popularity among Santa Monica residents has translated into money; Bird Rides raised $15 million during its Santa Monica experiment, according to Forbes, which the company plans to use to expand its services into cities throughout the United States. A Los Angeles Times article noted that Bird’s goal is $150 million in a funding round led by Sequoia Capital, the first of several planned funding rounds.

What’s Next for the Scooter Revolution?

Bird isn’t the only company that has ventured into the scooter ride-sharing space. Companies like Spin and LimeBike are also experimenting with scooters as well as with their more conventional counterpart, the bicycle.

These companies are often well-backed by venture capital, and they’re convinced that they can change the way we travel in densely-packed urban areas, for the benefit of the community and the environment. The cities in which these services are appearing, however, are taking a more skeptical view.

Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. have all seen bicycle and scooter ride-sharing services appear on their sidewalks in recent months. Often, the companies did not seek city approval before offering their conveyances and services to the public, according to the New York Times. And since the scooters are a relatively new project, there’s not yet a clear social etiquette for their use – or for where users should leave a shared scooter once they arrive at their destinations.

As a result, cities like Santa Monica and San Francisco have held emergency meetings, sent cease-and-desist notices, and even filed criminal charges. To date, however, the scooter companies don’t seem alarmed; Bird CEO VanderZanden even compared the controversy to the appearance of the first automobiles, framing it as part of the process of adapting to new, landscape-changing technology. What happens next for ride-sharing scooters remains to be seen.

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