As quickly as downtown Raleigh's love affair with Bird began, so could it end if the city council fixates on how to corral the scooters in the name of public safety instead of embracing their possibilities for residents.
The scooters arrived in Raleigh this summer without warning, appearing on sidewalks, ready to ride—as they have in cities all over the country this year. Local governments have reacted to their presence in very different ways. Some have banned them; others enacted regulations to punish the company if its users get out of line.
Citing concerns about public safety, Raleigh's city council last week gave its staff sixty days to craft regulations. For now, the scooters remain—but whether that will be the case two months from now remains an open question. During last Tuesday's council meeting, some council members seemed especially wary of the technology.
Chief among them was Dickie Thompson, who argued that the scooters should be banned until regulations are put in place. He warned that the city could be liable if someone got hurt.
"If it's your child or someone else's child who gets hit after this meeting today, then I think we'll have been shortsighted on this," Thompson chided council member and Bird enthusiast Nicole Stewart.
The brainchild of former Lyft and Uber executive Travis VanderZanden, Bird raised about $400 million by June. Its fundamentals are a lot like those rideshare companies: You download the Bird app to your smartphone, link a credit card, and use the app's GPS to find the nearest scooter. Then you scan the barcode on the handlebars, lift the kickstand, kick off three times before pressing the throttle, and away you go, up to fifteen miles per hour. The app charges you $1 to get started and fifteen cents per minute after that. (At the end of the night, Bird will pay you between $5 and $20 per scooter to bring scooters home, charge them, and put them out again in the morning.)
There are rules, of course, mostly spelled out in the lengthy user agreement that no one bothers reading. Helmets, for example, are required, and the company will even send you one for the cost of shipping. But you'll rarely see a rider wearing one. And city code prohibits riding on sidewalks, which nearly everyone does.
"I, like everyone else who rides them, disobey all traffic laws," says downtown resident Lisa Lauck. "It's probably only a matter of time before someone dies on one, but I can't help it. It's fun."
Bird isn't the only company in the emerging dockless scooter space—Spin and LimeBike have their own models—but it may be the most brazen, and for city planners, the most annoying. Part of the company's strategy banks on the element of surprise: The scooters just show up. Instead of waiting or negotiating for permits or regulations that may never come, Bird has, in essence, decided it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.
In Raleigh as in other cities, the debate revolves primarily around safety: how to keep riders from colliding with pedestrians and prevent the scooters from blocking sidewalks. Transportation director Michael Moore says residents have voiced "a general concern" about the scooters, though it's unclear how many complaints the city has actually received.
"I think it's disappointing we couldn't start as partners," Moore says. "In the situation we are [in] now, we have to regulate into a workable partnership, whereas if we had started and had more notice, we could have had a mechanism for them to operate with the licenses they needed."
In a statement, Bird says it "works with every city in which we operate so that we can provide a reliable and affordable transportation option under a framework that works for everyone."
Still, this "just show up" strategy has backfired in other cities. In Bird's hometown of Santa Monica, California, the scooters were quickly banned and later passed over in a competitive rideshare bidding process. In San Francisco, the scooters were tossed in trees and smeared with feces before being prohibited. Los Angeles issued the company a cease-and-desist order, though it hasn't been enforced. Denver, meanwhile, allows the scooters so long as they stay on the sidewalks and are parked at bus stops. To keep the city happy, Bird is setting aside money to help build and maintain bike lanes.
(At UNC-Chapel Hill, where the scooters showed up on campus as classes started last week, Bird agreed to temporarily remove them while the school "explores the possibility of a partnership with the company," Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises, said in a statement. UNC hopes to reach an agreement by the end of September.)
Raleigh is most likely to emulate Charlotte's model, Moore says. The Queen City first saw the scooters in May; unlike Raleigh, it already had a pilot program in place for dockless bikes, and scooters were easy enough to tack on. The program ends in October, at which point Charlotte will evaluate its next steps, which could include enacting a permitting process, launching a city-owned dockless ride program, or banning the technology altogether.
Ultimately, the process of "legalizing" Bird may include an encroachment agreement similar to what restaurants need to put seating on the sidewalk, as well as regulations guiding where the scooters can and cannot be ridden and left. Moore hopes to bring the proposed rules back to the council as early as September 4.
Along the way, city staffers will try to figure out "what constitutes success," Moore says. "If we cannot get folks to generally comply [with the new rules], then we'll probably start talking about having them removed from the streets."
Stewart, who rode a Bird to last week's council meeting, thinks there's fear-mongering at work.
"We're hearing a lot of fear—of uncertainty, of concern for how quickly Raleigh is growing—and I get that, and yet I think we also need to balance that with excitement for how we are going to plan for a better Raleigh," she says. "And you can't do that if you are only bringing one set of emotions to the table."
The scooters, she says, can not only fill what's called the missing mile of a commute after public transit, but also, unlike bicycles, "You don't have to sweat on them in the summertime, which is kind of amazing."
"We need to think more holistically about this problem instead of saying no to this one company and one type of transportation," Stewart says. "I saw a guy on an electric unicycle the other day."
From Stewart's perspective, many of the problems detractors associate with the scooters are really problems with the city's infrastructure—specifically, its shortage of wide, safe bike lanes that could move Bird riders off the sidewalks. And cracking down on the company itself, as the city seems likely to do, has its own inherent flaw: Users, not the company, control where the scooters are ridden and left. No one blames a car when there's a crash. Here, though, the city wants to point fingers at Bird if its users break the rules.
Last week, Zack Medford, an owner of Isaac Hunter's Hospitality and a leader of the Keep Raleigh Vibrant effort during the "Drunktown" debate in 2015, spread a pro-Bird public service announcement on social media to educate the masses on how to operate the scooters without endangering the public. As of Monday, the video has been viewed more than forty-five hundred times.
For Medford, Bird was love at first ride. He now uses the scooters daily to get around the city.
"Whether it's Bird or LimeBike hoverboards or something, I think the city needs to understand that this is the direction America and the world is moving," Medford says. "Instead of banning them, we should work to educate our citizens on how to use these technologies appropriately, safely, and adapt them into our community."
Moore—who hasn't ridden a Bird and won't until regulations are on the books—says that Bird is "a good example of the pace of technology kind of outstripping the pace of society to adopt and to adapt."
"It's why they call these types of technology disruptive technology—they do change the culture, and they do change our approach to life," he says. "I don't know what the next thing is after dockless scooters. Who is to say there is anything that comes differently after [Bird]? It's difficult to foresee."
It's not, Medford counters. Shareable mobility tech like Bird will be "a way of life going forward."
"These technologies are going to come whether Raleigh likes it or not," he says. "I'm excited for the day when the Raleigh City Council sees new uses of public space as an opportunity instead of a threat."