Bird flies in Santa Monica, ruffles feathers at City Hall

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Bird, a scooter-sharing startup in Santa Monica, has delighted many people young and old, but city officials want to apply the brakes.

Last fall a battery-powered, adult-size variant on a Razor scooter appeared on the streets of downtown Santa Monica.

It’s called Bird, it powers it along at a top speed of 15 miles an hour, it is booked and located via an App; and after arriving at a destination the rider simply leaves the Bird nearby — typically, on the sidewalk or in a parking lane (rather than seeking a parking station like Breeze Bikes). In the evening the company gathers them up and recharges them overnight.

Judging by the number of them now whizzing along the streets of downtown Santa Monica, these motorized scooters, founded by an Uber alumnus named Travis VanderZanden, have been an instant hit.

But City officials are putting on the brakes.

On the face of it, Birds appear like a perfect solution to the First Mile Last Mile problem (how to get transit users from home or work to a train station or bus stop), and provide an easy, sustainable, space-saving mode of transportation. But the city’s justice department has filed a criminal complaint against the company. Why?

Find out on our DnA broadcast, above, or read on.

DnA talks to Anuj Gupta, deputy city manager and director of policy, and learns that while, yes, the City does embrace Birds for all these reasons, “the challenge is that they have been operating in our city without a business license to operate,” they present a “public safety concern because of the fact that these scooters are in the public right of way,” and “they are they are operating in the public right away without a permit to do so.”

Birds are parked wherever the rider wants to stop. This one is on Arizona near 3rd Street Promenade (photo by Frances Anderton.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

One of the other problems is that Birds are classified in California vehicle code as electric motorized scooters, meaning you have to be over 18 to use them and have a driver’s license. And yet middle and high schoolers have taken to them like proverbial ducks to water.

Gupta says the City hopes to arrive at a mutually beneficial arrangement with Bird.

“We as a city I think are very excited by the notion of Bird, particularly because they are a homegrown business and because Santa Monica is a place that is a hotbed of innovation. We stand ready to sit down and partner with them on a way to get their devices onto the streets.”

A couple rides a Bird (photo by Frances Anderton.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

He adds, “This is just the beginning of a whole new series of devices that we’re likely to see. We may need to develop new regulatory approaches to these devices. But we need to do that and then partner with the companies to invite them in and design systems that accommodate their models.”

VanderZanden told DnA in an email: “We are looking forward to working with the city so that we can create sensible, modern regulations for new kinds of technologies like ours that are helping to solve the last mile transportation problem.”

Juan Matute is at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, and in his view Bird’s priority is kicking off a successful startup, heedless of city concerns, and is essentially “squatting” public space for private commerce.

He says he has tested a Bird and thinks it is “incredibly useful for shorter trips,” but points out there are “laws regulating vending in the public space” and here you have a “private company looking to get market share, get the next round of investment, prove something in Santa Monica and take it and grow it to other places with the hopes of becoming profitable, and having an IPO.” He thinks that some sort of shareable motorized scooter company will find a home in Santa Monica but it might not be Bird.

Ruby, left, and Kalea, are fans of Bird scooters, as are many Santa Monica teens. Shown at a Bird parked in front of the Apple store on 3rd Street Promenade (photo by Frances Anderton.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What this means for the teens who love this new mode of transit, however, is unclear.

Birds seem like a great way for kids to get to school — and out of parents’ cars which add so much congestion to the streets. But Gupta says it’s just this group that is putting themselves at risk. And as a new father himself, he adds, “it’s sobering to see two children on one Bird with no helmet or a child holding onto the back of their mother or father riding a bird with no helmet. These are real safety concerns given that the speed of these devices can travel and that they can share the road with cars and buses.”

On 3rd Street Promenade we ran into two young teens — Ruby and Kalea — and they explained what’s so appealing about Birds: they are “very cheap, easy to use, easy to find all over Santa Monica. . . a really great activity to do with friends and just really fun.” If somehow the city were to make it impossible for them to use, it would be “just sad.”

Image top of page taken from Bird’s Instagram page.