Santa Monica is currently overwhelmed by a flock of birds — only they have wheels instead of wings.
Southern California’s beachside city has unwittingly become a test bed for a new electric-scooter rental system run by local start-up Bird Rides. The scheme is delighting tourists and many residents as much as it is unsettling the local authorities and some pedestrians.
The Birds have handlebars but no seat, like a hot-rod version of the Razor or Micro scooters beloved by toddlers. They go at speeds of up to 15mph — faster than many cars can move in Los Angeles’ congested streets.
Visitors need only spend a few minutes on the Los Angeles beachfront that runs from Santa Monica to Venice to see dozens of the black-and-white Bird scooters whizzing along the boardwalk and bike path. I have not seen a local community embrace a new transportation service like this since Uber launched its ride-sharing service in San Francisco in 2012.
And like Uber, Birds are hired via mobile app, tracked via GPS and billed by the minute. After scanning a barcode on each scooter’s handlebars, riders pick them up and drop them off anywhere; with hundreds of them dotted along the five-mile stretch of coast, it means they are everywhere. An in-app map shows where every scooter is and how much battery each has left.
In LA, where the sun always shines and locals prefer not to leave their neighbourhoods, Bird seems like it could be the perfect “last mile” transportation system, with low emissions and low cost.
Santa Monica city council, however, does not see it that way. The city attorney’s office filed a criminal complaint against Bird Rides in December, just three months after the start-up launched. Santa Monica says it received no warning that its streets would be flooded by scooters.
The city argues that Bird Rides failed to apply for the proper business license for hiring out scooters. More significantly, having all those Birds flying around is causing safety problems, both for riders — most of whom do not use the helmet that California state law requires — and for pedestrians, who are tripping over discarded scooters in their driveways, on pavements or wheelchair ramps. Bird was in court on Thursday. According to the company, the judge agreed to put the case on hold for another 14 days to allow the parties to continue discussions.
There are echoes of Uber here, which in its early expansion phase, launched first and asked legal questions later. Bird does not face as entrenched an opponent as the taxi lobby, nor does it have two parties — drivers and passengers — to protect from one another as well as other road users. Santa Monica’s lawsuit is not intended to shut the company down, a spokesperson says, just ensure it complies with its legal and safety obligations.
But the two companies have other things in common.
One is its team: Bird’s founder and chief executive, Travis VanderZanden, worked at both Uber and Lyft in San Francisco before moving to LA.
The second is that, like ride-sharing, it is not entirely clear how an anywhere, anytime scooter rental app fits into existing regulations. Santa Monica seems to think it should be licensed like a food truck company for on-street vending. Bird says it has now applied for such a licence, following the lawsuit, but it still disputes that this is the appropriate designation.
It is not obvious, however, what the right classification should be. From bitcoin to drones, tech start-ups are constantly creating business models which fail to map to existing legislation. It does not mean companies should evade the law, but regulators should find ways for innovation to flourish if consumers want it.
In Santa Monica, Bird is quickly winning over the public. The service is so convenient. I am a keen commuter cyclist but I realise bikes are not for everyone: imagine how much more popular the cycle hire schemes in London, Paris or New York would be if people could ride them without getting sweaty climbing up a hill.
Most of the Bird rides I have taken have been under two miles, neatly filling the gap between too far to walk but too short to drive. Some of the most valuable have been when I was running between local meetings. Bird has saved me from arriving late more than once.
Scooters are also fun — as long as the battery lasts long enough to get to where you are going. On one ride along the beachfront at night, my Bird suddenly ground to a halt without warning, leaving me in the dark without another ride nearby. Scooter density (the same thing that maddens city authorities) is key to providing a reliable service, so that there is always another scooter to pick up.
That is an expensive proposition for a start-up like Bird. Perhaps that is why the service feels a little expensive over longer distances, coming in at $2.50 for a 10-minute ride or $4 to go just over three miles.
The biggest challenge standing between Bird and runaway success, though, is safety.
Even though electric scooters can take advantage of the growing number of bike lanes, there is still the risk of crash or collision, especially as drivers may not be accustomed to seeing what looks like a push-scooter go quite that fast. Accidents in Santa Monica have already been reported.
Over the past few months, I can count on one hand the number of Bird riders I have seen wearing the required helmet. Bird’s Instagram feed shows almost 100 happy customers wearing everything from bikinis to Santa hats, but until a couple of weeks ago, there was only one with a helmet.
The company does seem to be taking the issue more seriously. In mid-January, in an email entitled Ride Safely that reminded riders of their legal obligations to stay off the pavement and obey stop signs, Bird offered each of its active customers a free helmet.
This week, Bird expanded the service to another sunny California beachside town, San Diego, where its launch publicity focused on safety. (The move did not go unnoticed back in Santa Monica City Hall.)
I hope Bird does find a route out of its early legal wobbles because (weather and hills permitting) it seems like the service would work just about anywhere.
Together, electric scooters and bike-hire schemes such as China’s Ofo and Mobike can provide an easy alternative to driving for local trips. If Bird really takes off, it could be more than just inspired by Uber: it could disrupt the arch disrupter itself.
This article has been amended to make it clear that the law requiring a helmet to be worn while using a scooter is a California state law, not a local law implemented by Santa Monica city council.
Get alerts on Tech start-ups when a new story is published