Is Bird the new Uber?

Photo by Casey Gomez

I’m on the fence on whether scooters are a force for good or evil, or even if they should be discussed on those moral terms — but I do believe that scooters are the most disruptive transportation technology to hit the streets of Atlanta since Uber.

Forgetting safety for a second and assessing the matter in terms of helping people traverse a city — dumping scooters and bikes everywhere can work rather well in the right city environments, in my opinion. In summer of 2017, I was in China for nine weeks on a study abroad program, and one of the easiest ways to get around Tianjin or Shanghai was to take advantage of a loophole in older Ofo dockless bike models when paying riders forgot to lock their bikes after their trips.

Find an unlocked Ofo, and you’re good to go zipping around the city. Newer models have fixed that issue by automatically locking after a user ends a ride.

So to say the least, after a pleasant experience with dockless transport in China, I was ready to embrace them back at home, even at a cost. But little did I know that it would be scooters, not bikes, that would gain popularity.

When I think scooters, I think back to my childhood and a blue electric Razor Scooter my brother and I used to ride around and around our cul-de-sac. Over a year ago, when I first read about scooters as an actual mode of urban transport, I found the concept amusing.

Regardless of my initial skepticism, it seems apparent that scooters have caught fire, both in popularity, and, in the case of Lime scooters, literally: last week, Lime posted a blog letting people know the subset of its scooters manufactured by Segway-Ninebot were prone to “battery smoldering, or, in some cases, catching fire.”

So the question remains: are scooters to go the way of segways and hoverboards — relegated to niche populations — or will they take off and become a standard mode of transportation, like Uber? For me, the criterion for “standard mode of transportation” is becoming normal, ubiquitous, verbified and social to the point that the most regular thing in the world would be to Bird with a couple of your friends to Atlantic Station to watch a movie and Bird back.

At least from a venture capital standpoint, the scooter companies are following trajectories similar to or exceeding the growth of Uber. The two dominant scooter unicorns, Bird and Lime, were founded in 2017 and already have $2 billion and $1.1 billion valuations, respectively. This is a pretty rapid pace considering that it took Uber about three years from its initial seed funding in 2010 to reach a $3.5 billion valuation.

Similar to Uber, Bird and Lime also both offer a monetization method for the average person out there in the form of chargers that collect bicycles and recharge them overnight for instant money in the morning, a scheme that doubles as a method of managing scooter locations.

On a less pleasant note, like Uber, the scooter companies have been notorious for not communicating with local officials when introducing their vehicles to a region. Across the country, there have been complaints about scooters blocking sidewalks and cars, and riders not wearing helmets.

None of this rubs city officials the right way. In June, San Francisco banned all scooters companies after Lime and other companies ignored a cease-and-desist letter. When it came around to the decision-making time of which companies they would allow back on the streets, San Francisco city officials gave the cold shoulder to Bird and Lime and chose two smaller startups instead.

I think that here in Atlanta, we ought to give scooters a chance, while optimizing safety — an approach that I think that we at Tech have begun to manage well, with the advent of the Georgia Tech Police Department ticketing riders who violate traffic rules.

Relay Bikes, Atlanta’s homebrewed docked bike solution that launched in June 2016, had almost 11,000 rides in July 2018, a figure that sounds impressive until you calculate the amount of daily rides: a tad over 350 rides a day on average.

Although I lack usage statistics, just from watching popularity on campus alone, I am willing to bet that daily scooter rides across Atlanta are already well exceeding that threshold. Whether for better or worse, scooters are already a’changing the times.