Transportation

Cities to Bird: Pay Up if You Want Your Scooters Back

The on-demand scooter company is facing stiff impound fees from cities that were fed up with its deploy-now-and-ask-permission-later approach.

by Robyn Sidersky, The Virginian-Pilot / November 12, 2018
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(TNS) Have you seen the Bird scooters lying around Norfolk, getting swept up and impounded by city officials?

If Bird wants them back, the company will need to pay more than $18,000 in impound fees. Plus another $2,600 – that's $5 per day, per scooter. For over 520 scooters.

And counting.

The tab is one of many that Bird is running up around the country. The Silicon Valley start-up is using an act-first-ask-forgiveness-later strategy, dropping off flocks of the electric scooters around towns in hopes locals will become attached.

Bird now owes $362,800 to the University of Georgia and $32,000 to Santa Cruz, California. Virginia Beach has impounded 205 scooters and is owed $1,700, as of Oct. 31.

And that's just the beginning. Bird scooters have been reported in the cities of Nashville, Cleveland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Ann Arbor and Greensboro, North Carolina, just to name a few, according to news reports.

"The end game is kind of a land grab," said Graham Henshaw, executive director of the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center at the College of William & Mary. "In this sort of entrepreneurial space, when there is very little competitive advantage or mote, so to speak, the best thing a venture can do is have as much traction as possible."

"I think it's very difficult to look at one locality and see the big picture," he said. "What they're trying to do is blanket the entire country in scooters."

Think of it this way: if you travel between cities and already have a Bird account, it's easy to pick up a scooter and use it because you're already familiar with it.

"If you zoom out and look at the entire country, they're trying to create this network that expands everywhere," Henshaw said.

Riders pick up the dockless scooters from sidewalks, activate them with a cell phone app and zip off at up to 15 miles per hour. Paid workers periodically collect them to recharge the batteries.

Some have compared Bird to Uber, the ride sharing company that a few years back used a similar approach of just moving in before seeking permission. The company – which declined to answer questions from The Virginian-Pilot – has said: "We enter markets where scooters aren't prohibited, and we follow the laws on the books," Kenneth Baer, a Bird spokesman, told The Washington Post. "But in most cities, the laws never anticipated this technology."

The difference is that Bird actually owns all these scooters, Henshaw said.

And that means in places like Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the company's key property is piling up behind chainlink fences – sometimes with no sign that Bird intends to pay to get it back.

Norfolk rounded up more than 520 of the scooters as of Halloween, charging an initial fee of $35 per scooter and tacking on another $5 per day. That brings the company's minimum fines up to more than $18,000 just to cover the impound fee and another $2,600 per day – none of which the company has paid, according to city spokeswoman Lori Crouch.

City officials have tried to meet with Bird to hammer out an agreement since the scooters' late-August debut, Crouch said. They haven't succeeded.

In Virginia Beach, officials say they're following city and state code, which says any unclaimed personal property that has been in the police department's possession for more than 60 days may be sold at public auction or retained for use by the police department. The city will hold the property for another 30 days to give citizens – in this case, Bird – a chance to claim it, said police spokeswoman Tonya Pierce in an email. The scooters were rounded up between Oct. 4 and 31.

City Treasurer John Atkinson said he has no problem doing that, if that's what the city attorney directs him to do.

"Bird doesn't seem to care," he said.

Mayor Louis Jones in Virginia Beach said he has not gotten any feedback from city residents about the scooters; a city spokeswoman said she's heard some are for and some against.

Mayor Kenny Alexander in Norfolk said he has not heard from city residents about whether they want the scooters around or not, and there have not been any speakers at City Council about it.

The situation rings familiar in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

A little more than 200 Bird scooters have been impounded, said Paul Bostick, the city's code enforcement supervisor. They were rounded up two different times and only when they are violating the city's rules – for example, for blocking access. The city has charged Bird $5 per scooter per day, amounting to more than $7,700, which has in fact been paid, he said.

Bird didn't pay right away, though, and it wasn't easy to get in touch with the company.

"They do not have a good business model for keeping things in order," Bostick said. "It takes them forever to get someone with the authority to pay the bill."

Stillwater has also worked with Lime, a competing scooter company, and had the opposite experience. Not one Lime scooter has been impounded, to Bostick's knowledge. Lime has local contacts and has been working with the city.

"Bird has done none of that," Bostick said.

Lime has not appeared in the Hampton Roads area.

Bird has also made a push on some university campuses. At the University of Georgia, 1,045 scooters have been scooped up and caged, said university spokesman Greg Trevor. Bird has yet to settle its fines with the university – $115 for each impounded scooter, plus a $20 storage fee per scooter, per day. The total is over $362,800.

Missouri University spokesman Christian Basi said about two dozen scooters had been picked up by campus staff. Fees hadn't yet been set, he said, due to lack of communication from Bird.

"Bird has not been in contact with the university, even though we have asked them to address specific concerns related to safety and operational training," Basi said.

John McCandless, chief of police at Miami University, said the school had impounded 96 Bird scooters that were left blocking sidewalks and roadways. The university charges $25 per scooter impounded and a storage fee of $5 per scooter each day. That's $2,400 in impound fines, though unlike the fines in other localities, McCandless said Bird had paid fees to free the Miami scooters.

In Santa Cruz, California, transportation planner Claire Fliesler said the city issued a cease and desist order to Bird before city staff impounded about 175 scooters. Fees are $181 per scooter for a $32,000 total that Bird has not paid.

But not at all cities are resisting Bird's tactics.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Bird's hometown of Santa Monica is working out an agreement to safely permit the scooters. Los Angeles officials banned them, causing the company to file a lawsuit last week seeking the release of more than 1,000 impounded scooters.

In September, The Times-Dispatch reported that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney pitched a one-year pilot program which would allow Bird to operate within the city after paying fees based on the number of scooters deployed.

WTOP radio reported that after a yearlong private program with dockless bike and scooter companies such as Bird, the companies will permanently be in the District of Columbia beginning next year, but with a set of new rules. They will have speed limits, a set cap on the number of devices they can drop and other restrictions.

Additionally, there is a $10,000 performance bond, which the city will use to pay for removing or impounding unsafe or abandoned vehicles, WTOP reported.

Then there's Savannah, Georgia, which took the proactive approach.

"The city created an ordinance banning dockless scooters before they showed up," said Nick Deffley, Savannah's environmental services and sustainability director.

Right now Bird is operating with lots of start-up venture capital, but it remains to be seen whether it has a sustainable underlying business model, Henshaw said. The company seems to be trying to improve the way it works with cities, possibly in an effort to course correct and repair damage that such aggressive tactics have already caused its brand.

"I don't know if that has eliminated all the dump-and-hope-for-the-best strategy, but it does seem they are trying to rectify that," he said.

©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.