July 25, 2018



The transportation-sharing gold rush that began with Uber and Lyft is moving from cars to other types of vehicles. Leading to new bike-sharing companies, often in partnership with cities around the world, also starting to experience explosive growth. With both docked systems (like Lyft-owned Blue Bikes) that make riders pick up and drop off bicycles at designated docks. And newer (and more controversial) dockless systems like LimeBike that allow riders to grab bikes wherever they’re left. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the vehicle-sharing torch is now being passed to electric scooters. Also known as motorized skateboards with handlebars. Which use dockless systems, and which boosters say are useful for “last mile” transportation to subway stations and the like. But definitely not for generally wreaking havoc in all the urban spaces cars can’t go. Or so we’re told.


Bird Rides is part of a pack of electric scooter sharing companies that include Spin, Jump Bikes (an Uber-owned company that rents motorized bicycles), and LimeBike (that just got major investment from Uber and Alphabet/Google aimed at deploying scooters). And last week, as it has done in several American cities over the last year, Bird unceremoniously dumped a bunch of scooters on the streets of Cambridge and Somerville. Without first discussing the precipitous action with the governments of those cities.


It’s hard to know where to begin criticizing such a mercenary move. But, out of the gate, it typifies the arrogance of this latest wave of tech startups aimed at affluent flâneurs game to buzz around town for short periods of time on an unregulated rattletrap.


For starters, saddling municipalities with more unwanted sidewalk furniture is clearly the result of a cost-benefit calculation. While some communities—like Santa Monica, California, where Bird HQ is located—do manage to ding such companies for extralegal business models, the resulting settlements are usually disappointingly small. For example, although Santa Monica hit Bird with eight misdemeanor charges for its antics, the resulting $300,000 settlement is pocket change for a startup capitalized for hundreds of millions of dollars and valued at $2 billion last month, according to the New York Times. So that’s presumably considered to be part of the cost of doing business.


And given that the leadership of rival Lime just pointed out to Commonwealth magazine that a big reason for companies like Bird moving toward dockless systems is to skip the cost of building out docks—which a spokesperson estimated is $50,000 per dock—it’s easy to see why it’s far more affordable for such companies to take a few legal slaps on the wrist while saving millions. Then negotiate with cities retroactively, after they’re already making bank on the ground.


Second, unbelievably, Bird has put out electric scooters—which leave riders completely exposed to every kind of potentially deadly accident on city streets—around Camberville and across the nation, but made helmets optional. Sure, they tell riders to pay for postage to be mailed a “free” helmet from the company, but they are obviously passing the cost of inevitable accidents onto rushed users who generally will not be bothered to wait days to get a helmet. For a conveyance that screams out to be jumped on and ridden in the heat of the moment of encountering one. At least to the hapless people-children with more money than sense of the type at whom Bird is aiming its marketing—with all the talk of “birds” and “flocks” and “nests.”


Yeah, real cute. And the red of the hipster blood that will be sprayed all over local asphalt each of the many times such cheap metal toys get doored by just-parked cars will be “cute” too.


Sadly, Bird is not alone in failing to provide helmets. Major bike and scooter sharing companies seem to default to making the provision of that basic piece of safety equipment up to the individual riders. Which can only be compared to an alternate universe where Uber and Lyft left it up to individual riders to provide seat belts in the cars they hired.


It’s already bad enough that vehicle-sharing companies are adding more bicycles to streets that are largely unprepared to handle them. The less so as companies like Uber and Lyft that are now trying to cash in on bikes and scooters have already made vast sums adding more and more car trips to those same overburdened thoroughfares. In the case of Boston, 100,000 extra rides per day last year according to Mass Department of Public Utilities data.


But at least most people learned to ride bikes in childhood. How many people learned to safely ride electric scooters? And Bird doesn’t even appear to be bankrolling fake safety studies to wave around. It’s just putting motor vehicles capable of doing 15 mph with no safety features of any kind out there, obstructing city sidewalks for disabled and elderly residents (as recently came up in city council hearings on the company’s practices in San Francisco), and ringing that digital cash register. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ka-ching.


Finally, and worst of all, companies like Bird and the rest are engaged in privatizing what should be part of an improved public transit system. As I’ve written before. While one can certainly make good arguments for adding noncarbon-burning vehicles like bikes to the mix of multimodal urban transportation—especially in service of the environment—that doesn’t change the fact that we’re allowing private corporations to enrich themselves providing services that take urbanites off of public transportation. Training those who can afford it to spend money on private transportation. Money that is then taken away from public transit systems already starved for funds in an age of austerity. Thus hastening their demise.


Some of these sharing companies at least make deals with cities in advance and jointly develop programs like Boston Bikes’ Discounted Blue Bikes that offer their services at cut rates to working families. But Bird’s model looks to be entirely profit-driven and completely mean-spirited. No matter how much CEO Travis VanderZanden tries to equate the unasked-for and unwanted service to “freedom.” Doubtless Cambridge and Somerville solons are already figuring out ways to regulate the corporation. But in this case, I’ve actually got to applaud my long-time foil, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for warning Bird off with a statement bluntly explaining that if Bird plunks its bikes down in the Hub without prior agreement, city workers will immediately seize them. And let the company pick them up at some city tow yard. Until Bird agrees to play nice.


In the meantime, it may well also come to pass that enraged Cambridge and Somerville burghers (and/or drunken teens, as has already happened elsewhere) will take matters into their own hands and dispose of scooters on or near their property (and/or hangouts) in the manner that possibly just contributed to dockless bike sharing company ofo pulling out of Lynn, Quincy, and Worcester—by throwing them into any nearby bodies of water. Like the Charles and Mystic rivers, for example. Not that I would ever condone such a course of action. Because that would be wrong.


Still, public officials need to hear from constituents about Bird and similar corporate scofflaws early and often. To stiffen their resolve to not only regulate them, but also to start offering municipally run vehicle-sharing services as part of the vastly expanded multimodal public transit system we desperately need on both cost and environmental grounds—for less money to riders while paying the people that run them a living wage with benefits. All by removing rent-seeking sociopathic corporations from the equation.


And wouldn’t that be a nice change from governments just throwing their hands in the air, as they did when Uber and Lyft arrived on the scene, and saying, “Sorry, nothing we can do… That’s capitalism, folks.”


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.