I’m an LA native, and I couldn’t bring myself to hate Bird e-scooters
When I was a teenager growing up in West LA, a friend of mine from a different part of the city derisively called my neighborhood “Scooter-Ville” because it was so “wholesome.” He’d look out of my big bedroom window to see the neighborhood kids riding their Razor scooters up my empty block, around the cul-de-sacs, over and down the circular driveways.
Now, a different sort of scooter has come to town: “Bird” electric scooters.
Bird is a new transportation company that places un-docked electric scooters around a city. Users can unlock them with the touch of an app and use them to travel short distances at 15 mph. It’s one of a host of new dockless transportation companies — along with LimeBike, Jump, and others — bringing easy-to-use, non-car transit options to cities across the country. It’s also one of the more recent technology companies to call Santa Monica its home base and effectively its beta testing ground.
I really tried to hate Bird scooters. The hubris with which Bird haphazardly introduced a decidedly uncool app-based product all around my hometown — without asking for permission from the city or input from residents — seemed to represent everything I resented about the tech industry’s invasion of the place I grew up.
Then I spent an afternoon trying out Bird — Birding, if you will — with one of my best friends, someone who grew up around the corner from me. We couldn’t deny the Bird truth: These dockless scooters were convenient, useful, and really freaking fun.
The flock descends
Bird scooters started appearing in West Los Angeles on September 1. Since then, according to Curbed, there have been more than 40,000 rides taken, and estimates put the number of Birds chilling on the West side at 1,000. Bird has lately expanded from just Santa Monica and Venice to West LA neighborhoods Brentwood and Westwood, which includes the UCLA campus. On Wednesday, Bird debuted in Washington, D.C.
To ride a Bird, users download an app and pay $1 per ride, plus 15 cents for each minute of riding time.
But when it comes to transportation, an easy how-to is just the beginning of what a company needs to get up and running.
Birds got off to a rocky start last fall, and they’re still working out the kinks. The company began its service without applying for the proper permits, and without entering into any agreement with West LA cities. According to the Washington Post, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden sent Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer a LinkedIn message by way of a heads-up. In response, Winterer gloriously said:
“If you’re talking about those scooters that are out there already, there are some legal issues we have to discuss.”
VanderZanden clearly learned some lessons from his days in ride-sharing. He’s the first COO of Lyft and was VP of driver growth for Uber. The revolutionary apps famously instituted an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” strategy when they launched earlier in the decade.
Bird has agreed to pay a $300,000 settlement for launching and operating without proper permitting, though it contends that the city was simply not equipped to permit a company such as Bird. It has also seriously upped its safety game, with multiple reminders to users to wear helmets and not ride on sidewalks. And on Tuesday, it signed on to the “Save Our Sidewalks” pledge with other dockless ride-sharing companies to avoid the “bike litter” mess that these sorts of companies have created in China.
Still, early in March, the City of Santa Monica announced that it would impound Birds found lying in the middle of the sidewalk — like the first IRL Bird that I encountered, which was plopped as a discarded road hazard outside of the pilates studio where I was taking a much-needed “Buns and Guns” class with my mother while visiting home.
My friend Amelia and I grew up around the corner from each other in “Scooter-Ville,” an atypically understated neighborhood that borders Santa Monica, Brentwood, and the Pacific Palisades. Amelia, who is an engineer for a tech company, and I were both visiting home at the same time, and we decided to run some errands and go Birding.
After grabbing kale salads in the Montana shopping district, we decided to move to the Third Street Promenade. We opened the app and were surprised to find a dozen Birds within walking distance — and two on our very block!
We left the restaurant, and I turned the corner to find my Bird — and nearly ran into it. It was propped up on its kickstand in the middle of the sidewalk. I claimed the Bird as my own, while Amelia went to find hers down the block.
I opened my app, following the step-by-step instructions to unlock my Bird, which included safety warnings and waiver signings. I struggled a bit with the required Driver’s License ID scanning, which did not work seamlessly. Luckily, two children and someone I assumed to be their manny came up to me and said, “Oh, you’re using Bird! We just used this one! Here’s how you do it.”
You have to be over the age of 18 to rent a Bird. And only one person may ride a Bird at a time. Hmmm…
The kids cheered me on as I pumped, glided, and hit the throttle for the first time. The pickup was immediate. I definitely shrieked, and took it slow while I crossed the trafficky street. But as I hunted down Amelia (who had to pursue a second Bird, since the first one was nowhere to be found), I let it rip. It was … fun! 15 miles per hour sounds slow, but for a girl who never got the hang of longboarding despite many teaching attempts by skater boyfriends over the years, I felt balanced, safe, and in command of my Bird.
We set off down Montana Avenue toward the ocean, riding in the bike lane beside the BMWs. We agreed that having the break on the left and the throttle on the right was a bit confusing in action, somehow. And it was annoying that you had to keep your thumb on the gas the whole time to keep moving. But the process was pretty seamless, and we gained confidence and speed as we descended deeper into Santa Monica.
As we rode down the wide stretch of 4th Street south to the Promenade, two skateboarders smirked as we passed, and I felt a brief moment of shame. But mostly, I was impressed by how fast we were getting where we were going. What would have been a 20-minute walk was a 5-minute Bird. What would have been a maybe 3- or 4-minute drive, plus endless circling in the crowded parking garages of Santa Monica, would conclude without the hassle of parking drama. We couldn’t deny it by the end of the ride: Birding was great.
We quickly found a bike rack on the corner of 4th Street and Wilshire, parking our Birds with their kickstands as we made our way to our afternoon of shopping on the Promenade.
While walking among the Banana Republics and J. Crews, we saw multiple Birders. Bird’s rules specifically prohibit riding in this pedestrian shopping zone, and we raised our eyebrows at the man in the sailor hat riding in full view of the rent-a-cops, and the kids pushing a locked Bird as it beep-beep-beeped feebly.
With shoes and a new dress in hand, we decided to call an Uber home, because we had too much to carry, and it was getting late — Bird collects all of its e-scooters at the end of the day, and you can’t activate them after 8 p.m. But as we waited for our Uber, watching him circle the congested one-way streets, a Bird stood proudly plopped on the corner where we were waiting. If we’d wanted to ride it, it was right there.
Get off my lawn
Much to my surprise, I became a Bird believer. But their presence, at least in theory, still irks me. I project onto them what I resent most about the technology industry’s adoption of West LA, the place I grew up, as its Southern California home base.
The characteristics I associate with West LA are peacefulness, beauty, and effortless cool. Bird is decidedly none of those things.
Let’s just say it: Bird scooters are an eyesore. They hang out where they don’t belong, and their matte black design is dark and blah. Take a look at the shared bikes for rent around LA: baby blue, cream, green and white. Their cruiser curves and fun colors fit in with the trees and the sunlight. It’s clear that whoever decided on the Bird aesthetics wasn’t thinking about the particular look and feel of West Los Angeles — a place where even landscaping requires permits. Birds’ aesthetics represent a lack of understanding about the value of a beautiful place to live, a lack of consideration that mirrors the attitude Bird took when it brought the service to Santa Monica without getting permission from city officials or residents.
Bird scooters also cast something that’s part of West LA lifestyle as a problem that needs “disrupting.” Bird definitely has its uses, but walking and wandering from a yoga studio to a cafe is one of the joys of Santa Monica life. You stop at the grocery store, maybe run into a neighbor — it’s the feel of small-town errands nestled in a big city. On the Promenade, doing our errands by foot, I actually ran into one of my best friends who was doing shopping for her sister’s birthday. We hugged and laughed, and it occurred to me that if I had been zipping by on a Bird, I would have missed her. When the best way to get somewhere is by foot it encourages peace of mind. The introduction of a technological option robs the errand runner of that feeling.
Finally, let’s look at what Birds supplement: the cultural hallmark of West LA, the skateboard. There’s no better metaphor for Silicon Valley’s invasion of Santa Monica and Venice than the introduction of depersonalized electric scooters in the birthplace of skating. Skateboards represent a casualness and swagger that hangs in the clean, ocean-y air throughout West LA, whether you ride a skateboard or not. They’re also an expression of individuality and style: Do you ride a longboard or skateboard? Is it covered in stickers or pristine as the day you bought it? But Birds, placed haphazardly around the city, not owned or adorned with or by anyone, lack the personality that walking, biking on a cruiser, skating, even roller blading on the bike path, provide.
As an artifact and a symbol, Birds crystallize what irks some longtime residents (including me) about the recasting of placid West LA as Silicon Beach. But in practice, they’re useful and fun, and I’m happy they’re here.
In our evening Uber ride back to my parent’s house, we drove along Ocean Avenue, looked at the picnic lights and neon signs, and listened to the bumping bass emitting from hip restaurants and hotels along the Avenue.
In West LA, the thatched bungalows lining the Venice canals have turned into glass and steel boxes, my teenage stomping grounds have become well-lit esplanades for romper- or performance fleece-wearing young professionals. The tech industry is partially responsible for making a yuppie paradise out of the character-filled place where I grew up, probably forever. But with the old is something new, something fun, and something that’s definitely ready to be explored.
That’s something I can’t stay mad at. Bird on.