Friday, July 20, 2018

BIRD mania hits Baltimore - is it viable transportation?

Bikes are so yesterday, today its BIRDS, those little electric scooters one can find all over town. Talk about disruption! While many interested in clean, "alternative" ways of getting around in downtown Baltimore, still worry about the fate of Baltimore's troubled Bikeshare (see here), Bird, a company founded by former Lyft COO and Uber VP Travis VanderZanden raised $100 million in venture capital two months ago, began raising another $150 million in June and is now engaging in raising another $200 million according to Fortune Magazine.  The company is already valued at $2 billion. That is fast, even by start-up measures, given that the LA based company started operations only in September 2017. Maybe even more surprising, Baltimore is part of the 22 cities in which Bird is operating as of July 9, 2018. The secret for being part of the avantgarde: The City wasn't involved at all. The scooters just showed up. 
Suffragette Florence Norman on her motorized
scooter  in London 1916 (Mashable)

On the heels of Bird is the competitor Lime which first flooded cities with dockless bikes until Lime  became unwelcome in many places for all the clutter they created.

The scooter, known to most as a kid's  mobility tool between the tricycle and the bicycle, has popped up out of nowhere. As it is now common among startups, nobody knows how serious the innovation is. Adults riding around on scooters, is this really the next big thing that will undo bikeshare? Uber and Lyft, the car share disrupters, just this year decided to invest in bikeshare, are they already betting on  the wrong horse?

If Baltimore is any indication, the same folks which were called the Millennials,  until the term became an insult of sorts, and which were all excited about Baltimore's late entry into docked bike-share, are now gaga over the scooters. The hipness of a workplace, apartment building or event can now be measured by the number of scooters lined up in front. I am glad to report that my own office building, tucked away in the not soi hip westside has scooters out front at times (not because of me), Data Day at the University of Baltimore, of course, had them. even the venerable law firm of Ballard Spahr attracted two scooter riders to their breakfast meeting. Little Havana, just as many other locals around the Harbor are regular Bird ports. Transportation keynote speaker Robert Puentes (not a Millennial anymore) claimed to have used a Bird to get from Penn Station to his talk at the Federal Reserve.
Actresse and model Charlotte McKinney
on a Bird Scooter 2017

So what's the deal with those things? Are they really useful? Should they be regulated or banned like in Denver and San Francisco? Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, an avid promoter of alternative transportation allowed the scooters in her city as long as they don't ride on sidewalks. As common for disruptive technology, there isn't really any applicable regulation unless city councils pass them in a hurry.

As an avid former child  kick-scooter user (not electric, of course, but with nice big inflated tires and two brakes) I had to try it out. My first instinct is to use the Bird on the sidewalk, especially in Baltimore where most sidewalks are deserted while the roadways are clogged. But a label on the stepping board says, "no riding on sidewalks". Going into traffic with the thing seems ballsy, even with the required helmet (I haven't seen scooter users wearing a helmet), except where protected bike lanes are in place. The Bird is peppy and lots of fun!

The scooter gets located with the Bird app on the smart phone (it has GPS), than activated via OCR code on the handlebar. Pay via Apple Pay (or credit-card, Paypal etc.) and then "unlock" the scooter. (If not unlocked the Bird moves but makes unhappy tweet noises and doesn't activate the electric motor). Once unlocked a couple of foot pushes ("kicks") are needed and then the handlebar switch can be used to accelerate with battery power. The ride tops out at 15mph which can be fast on our not so smooth streets and walks. There is nothing to riding this vehicle, anybody who can stand straight and hold on to a bar can do it. A left mounted hand-break stops the scooter quick and without toppling the rider over the handlebar as some bikes are prone to do. Of course, before stopping one foot has to come off the board to not fall over. (The Internet is full of horrible pictures showing the scooters mangled under cars).
German kids with kick-scooters in Bonn, 1955

The first minute costs $1.00, additional minutes $0.15. A short 3-5 minute ride will cover a few city blocks and sets you back about $1.75 or so, with taxes. This is much cheaper than bikeshare which in most cities requires a membership or a daypass that costs as much as $15 in New York.  Lime has already introduced the $1 ride on its dockless bikes as well. Much cheaper than Uber or Lyft and probably faster.

Of course, just as in the case of the bicycle, its not the vehicle itself that causes the disruption but the method of deployment. Scooters have been around for about 100 years, predominantly as kids toys but there were early attempts of motorizing them or using them for mail delivery. Kids scooters are still common in Europe and even though, Razor has recently changed the popular design towards those tiny wheels adopted from skateboards.  Electric Razor scooters can be bought for just north of 100 bucks online. Affordability and mechanical simplicity are certainly attractive to Bird and Lime and explain the ease with which these companies penetrated entire cities with a fleet of  scooters.
Segways on a nature tour

Time will tell if the suit and tie crowd or people running out for an errand will really take to scooters beyond the craze that comes with anything new. Segway, the inventor of the self-balancing two wheel electric stand-up vehicle certainly erred in thinking their innovation would become the mode of choice. At  $5k or more, price  was the prime obstacle along with the counter-intuitive balancing act.

But Segway also makes an electric scooter. It looks just like  the Bird and goes 15 miles on a single charge of its Lithium Ion battery. It cost $500. The Bird scooter is made by the Chines company Xiaomi which also owns Segway.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Bird scooter map and cost summary after checking out a ride
(Photo: Philipsen)

detail of wheel (Photo: Philipsen)

Bell left, accelerator to the right, OCR code in the middle
(Photo: Philipsen)

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