Can the Bird electric scooter solve our transit woes?

Can the Bird electric scooter solve our transit woes?
A Bird scooter stands along Colorado Blvd. and 5th Ave. in Santa Monica. The scooters are irritating city officials because people are leaving them all over the city. (Los Angeles Times)

On the Santa Monica and Venice Beach oceanfront, alternative modes of transportation are nothing new. This is where the Dogtown skateboarders ruled in the 1970s, where Jimmy Buffet saw a man rollerskating naked through a crosswalk in the 1980s, where Rollerbladers led the inline trend of the 1990s, and where I've seen unicycles, bicycles, tricycles, pedicabs, Segways, ElliptiGOs, horses, dog sleds on wheels, and a shopping cart modified by a homeless man into a motorized conveyance.

Everyone has to make do with urban infrastructure designed for cars, if they venture onto the streets, or pedestrians, if they keep to the sidewalks. So do riders trying the newest craze on the Westside: Bird, the slim, stand-up electric scooter that maxes out at 15 mph. It's an alternative to a long walk, a bike ride or a short drive to an area without parking. Unlocking one requires a smart phone, a credit card and a driver's license.


Cyclists, who fought long and hard for a tiny strip on the margins of our roads, can be forgiven for not wanting to share their paths.

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As with bike-share programs, users pay to rent them –– $1 per ride plus 15 cents per minute. But at the end of the ride there's no need to find a docking station. Like cars, Birds can be left at one's destination, even an out-of-the-way shop or a house in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Travis VanderZanden, a former Uber and Lyft executive, raised $15 million in backing for Bird, suggesting he's not the only one convinced it can gain followers in Southern California and beyond. But many regard Birds as an invasive species, and they are registering their complaints on neighborhood forums like Nextdoor as well as in bars and coffee shops.

Bird riders, they complain, are breaking the formal rules that helped persuade Santa Monica to allow the new technology. Riders are supposed to wear helmets and stick to the streets while avoiding sidewalks. Many do neither. The dearth of fixed docking stations means Birds are often left blocking a sidewalk or leaned against a shop window. And they're too quiet — a pedestrian can't even hear one coming.

All of those critiques are fair. And figuring out where exactly Birds fit next to cars, bikes and people, if they fit at all, is bound to involve trial and error, as well as an unknown number of injuries to riders and bystanders. Cyclists, who fought long and hard for a tiny strip on the margins of our roads, can be forgiven for not wanting to share their paths.

But the Westside's streets are gridlocked for hours twice a day, everyday; cycling is often lethal; and excepting main commercial strips and touristy stretches, most of the area's sidewalks are utterly empty. That status quo isn't worth preserving, is it?

Bird can only disrupt our streetscape insofar as it is popular. But if it grows in popularity, it could make Westside residents and visitors less reliant on Uber, Lyft and personal vehicles, reducing congestion, freeing up parking spots and decreasing emissions. It might be especially useful in taking people the "last mile" home after getting off a bus or train.

Maria Konnikova once pointed out that "precedence-based reasoning is everywhere in life. ... We think we should earn more than a new hire; we believe that seniority in a group should be respected, and get mad when our status is usurped by an upstart. So it goes when it comes to the feeling of owning the road: precedence comes first." At bottom, the case against Bird is that other methods of transportation got there first, and electric scooters fit uneasily into the system built for them.

Progress requires us to welcome newcomers and the dynamism they inject into our cities. Just as Uber and bike shares inspired Bird, allowing Bird to operate will inspire new innovations and variations on getting from here to there –– and those innovations will inspire us to rethink how our streets and sidewalks ought to be used, rather than concluding that today's gridlocked Los Angeles is as good as it gets.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

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