The trial period for Bird scooters has been extended, but the conflict, questions remain

Sep 7, 2018 at 10:55 am
Bird scooters stationed on the street.  |  photo by Kathryn Harrington
Bird scooters stationed on the street. | photo by Kathryn Harrington

The 30-day trial period for Bird scooters has been extended, because they have “operated as city officials expected.”

But the arrival of Bird here still presents many questions and concerns, just as have Uber, Postmates and other companies that have expanded aggressively across the country, sometimes moving in unannounced and before the creation of regulations. Supporters say the electric scooters, which users can rent through a smartphone, are environmentally-friendly, easily-accessible modes of transportation that are even creating side hustles. But city governments, including Louisville’s, are scrambling to figure how to regulate them, particularly in regards to enforcing their safe operation and any liability the city might face because of accidents.

“As with any new program or initiative, there are some things to celebrate and some things to improve,” Develop Louisville spokesman Will Ford said in a statement upon announcing the second trial period. “We have seen and heard of users riding on the sidewalk and without helmets and we encourage Bird to work with their users to promote safe riding. We are continuing to work on a long-term policy for the safe and equitable use of this new part of our shared economy.”

At least one city council member has voiced concerns about their safety and regulation, but Bird maintains it is working with local governments.

“We are learning and evolving in terms of our process and take a very tailored and prescriptive approach for how we engage in each community,” a Bird spokesperson wrote in an email. 

The scooters were initially scattered across Louisville in mid-July without advance notice from the California company. The city demanded Bird remove the scooters, but then reached a temporary contract to redeploy the fleet Aug. 8 for the pilot program. The program was extended.

The second trial period retains the same rules. Bird and similar companies, must operate in an area that extends from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to Watterson Expressway. When parked, the scooters must be stowed out of the right-of-way. The scooters parked on sidewalks cannot block passage of anyone covered under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Bird has two hours to fix reported violations. Riders also must operate the scooters on roads and not on sidewalks.

Louisville Metro District 4 Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith said she is concerned about the safety of the scooter, which can travel 15 mph. “People that were riding them didn’t really understand the rules and regulations,” Sexton Smith told LEO. “They didn’t understand the rules of the road. They didn’t know what governs scooters. So they were going all which ways, up and down one-way streets the wrong ways. Flying down sidewalks. They were going 15 mph going by business entrance doors. It was kind of a crazy situation.”

In Santa Monica, California, where Bird is based, the fire department has responded to 34 serious accidents involving scooters, according to a Washington Post story. The story also reports that emergency-room physicians in seven cities, including Austin, Atlanta and Nashville, have logged a spike in severe accidents from scooter accidents.

Assignment of liability for accidents, too, remains unanswered. Bird obtained insurance and posted a $20,000 bond. But, at a presentation from the Department of Public Works and Develop Louisville to the Louisville Metro Council’s Public Works Committee meeting on Aug. 14, Sexton Smith asked about assignment of legal responsibility.

“No one had an answer and that’s a problem,” she said later. “That’s why I say, ‘Why did we have to have an emergency temporary agreement in place when we don’t have some very basic questions answered yet.’ Let’s do this right.”

At that meeting, Al Andrews, project manager with Public Works, told council members he didn’t think citing riders was possible at the moment. “I don’t think there is a fine set up for operating on a sidewalk, because I don’t know how we could impose that,” Andrews said. “And I don’t know how we can enforce it.”

Ford said Develop Louisville is “not aware of LMPD issuing any citations to anyone on a Bird scooter.”

The Louisville Metro Police Department did not return LEO's request for comment. The Mayor’s Office and the Department of Public Works declined to comment beyond a press release.

Birds Run Afoul Elsewhere

Founded in 2017 by a former Uber executive, Bird deems itself the “last mile electric scooter rental service.” In other words, its product — just $1 to rent plus 15 cents for each minute used — is designed to transport people short, walkable distances faster. It’s an innovative concept that’s caused controversy. With scooters in close to 40 cities across the U.S., that can be expected. Do a quick search online and article after article pops up about actions against them and companies like them.

Two days after Bird launched in Nashville, it received a cease-and-desist order from the city. Nashville allowed the scooters back, but then pulled them off the streets in June, citing a lack of regulations and safety concerns. After approval of new rules from its council, officials allowed the scooters back on the roads in August. The Tennessean reported that changes included instituting a $500 registration fee per scooter with a cap of 500 per company. Nashville will issue a $25 fine against the company for violations of right-of-ways.

This past week, Bird scooters returned to Indianapolis. While considering licensing requirements, the city pulled the scooters roughly three weeks after they dropped in July. The City-County Council’s newest ordinance regulates where these scooters can be parked. In an Indianapolis Star article, a spokesman for the Indiana State Police reminded users that scooter drivers could still be arrested for DUI.

Louisville officials did not address the issue of DUIs in the current pilot program.

The Denver Post reported that city officials there, after rival electric scooter company Lime made its surprise debut, impounded more than 260 following unheeded requests for them to be removed from streets and sidewalks. A one-year pilot program now allows back Lime and four similar companies including Bird back as long as each company caps its scooters at 250 units and, in contrast to other cities, ride only on sidewalks instead of roadways and bike lanes.

Bird Migration

The strategy of asking forgiveness rather than permission works, according to Jeff Papa, former mayor and council president for the town of Zionsville, Indiana who teaches public policy at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Once in place, new sharing technologies such as Airbnb, Uber and now Bird are harder to regulate because a constituency already had an economic interest in the product, he said. “When the government comes in and tries to establish rules that restrict its use or cut down on the economic value of the activity, you're obviously going to get a lot more pushback from those individuals than you would have if the entire concept was still theoretical,” Papa said.

Sexton Smith said the Bird strategy in Louisville is no different: “What happens is it creates so much media, so much attention, so much social media that that becomes part of an ingenious marketing plan from their perspective.”

A user riding a Bird Scooter.  |  photo by Kathryn Harrington - KATHRYN HARRINGTON
A user riding a Bird Scooter. | photo by Kathryn Harrington

Back In The Nest

For some, the Bird’s arrival means bucks.

As the sun set on the Louisville home of Griffin Dampier, the 26-year-old IT tech by day readied for a scavenger hunt. Dampier is a power charger for Bird. Every night since their release, he climbs into his blue van and searches for the scooters that, after a day of riding, need to be recharged.

The company’s app has been tweaked for these independent contractors to help them find the scooters. Various colored circles dot Dampier’s mobile screen, telling him the location of a scooter and how much it’s worth to pick it up. Depending on the length of time the scooter has been left without pickup, he can earn from $5 to $20 per Bird. That figures out to about $60 a night for him, after he picks up the scooters, charges them at his home and then distributes them to designated “nests” the early the following morning.

He calls it a side-hustle. And hustle he does. If other chargers beat him to the more high-priced Birds, he can lose income. So each evening is a race for Dampier. But he enjoys it.

“I don’t have to do this every night. I do this by choice,” Dampier said. 

A vacation to Los Angeles piqued his interest in the new technology. When Dampier and his girlfriend visited earlier this year and rode a Bird, he was amazed by their convenience. He hoped his hometown of Louisville would soon host the emerging electric transport.

A few months later, it did. “The way I see it, these 10 cars right here, imagine if these were 10 people on scooters,” he said. “Think how much less congestion and traffic there would be. There’s so much good to come from it.”

Around 9:30 p.m., Dampier collected his fifth scooter of the day outside of the Silver Dollar on Frankfort Avenue. To find their quarries, chargers can set off alarms and lights on the devices. Roughly 20 minutes and two scooters later, he picked up three more downtown, outside of the Galt House Hotel. All of the scooters he gathered that night had been appropriately stowed near buildings and not blocking sidewalks. Dampier said that’s generally the norm.

By the end of each evening, the scooters will be off the streets. At 10 p.m., he pulled back into his garage and hooked each of the scooters to a charger similar to what you’d use on laptop. By 4 a.m., he’d be back in his van to deliver the Birds to their assigned locations.

The Convenience Of Bird

Journalist Chris Larson, who works downtown at Louisville Business First as its healthcare and higher education reporter, needed to get to Spalding University. For the first time since the late 1990s, the 27-year-old rode a scooter.

“I was a little worried initially getting on one of these,” Larson said. “It’s been so long since I’ve ridden anything. So riding on these scooters with a motor on the street with other vehicles was a little daunting at first.”

But once he went through the steps, the scooter’s operation seemed almost intuitive and rather easy. And fun — since he arrived a bit early for his meeting, he took the Bird for an extra spin. While longer distance assignments require a car, Larson said he would use a scooter again. “For puttering around town, trying to get to somewhere that you want to get a little bit more quickly than walking, that’s where I see these scooters as being great,” he said.

Bird agrees. “Not only is it an environmentally-friendly way for people to travel that last-mile to their work, home or for a fun ride around town, but Bird is also a great solution for any City that has a vision of building a community with fewer cars, less traffic and reduced carbon emissions,” the Bird spokesman said.

That can include trips between bus stations and workplaces or from jobs to after-hours fun. It’s common to see scooters outside bars and restaurants. NuLu establishments Feast BBQ and Garage Bar are two usual stops for the independent chargers who gather the scooters at the end of the night.

R. Ryan Rogers, founder of HiCotton Hospitality and Feast BBQ, has hopped on Birds in Cincinnati and Louisville and found them to be “a convenient and environmentally-friendly form of transportation.” He sees the promise of the new technology, while noting potential problems, such as ADA noncompliance issues and not riding them according to the rules.

“I find that the scooters do a good job within the app of asking riders to follow rules of the road, asking for drivers licenses, prompting for helmet usage and reminding riders to place the scooters in bike racks or off to the side whenever possible,” Rogers said. “There will always be bad actors with anything, but I think that the scooters ultimately make our city more accessible to all by adding a new, relatively inexpensive form of transportation.” •