Last August, e-scooter rental company Bird came up with an ingenious way to drum-up support for their business and cool concerns that the scooters that have flooded many U.S. cities are dangerous. The company said it would donate $1 per scooter per day to their host cities to create protected bike lanes.
It was a wonderful idea. After all, scooters are often most useful in cities like Dallas that have done a poor job historically of investing in multiple transit options. Dallas needs more bike lanes. Bird needs more riders. Bike lanes could provide safer rides and attract more users. Win-win for everyone.
Well, not so much. Bird has quietly backed off its offer, according to Streetsblog, and the information about the bike lane program has been removed from the company’s website. Furthermore, not many cities have received any money from the rental company. One city that did receive cash, Baltimore, has about $110,000 sitting in an account waiting to be budgeted.
Given how quickly Bird backed off its bike lane program, you might see the whole thing as a cynical public relations ploy by a company that was trying to shore up political support for its product at a time when cities around the country were blocking or banning e-scooters. Perhaps the decision has more to do with economics. The initial venture capital cash that fueled its rapid expansion may be drying up.
Bird is valued at $2 billion, but Axios reported last month that scooter companies are running low on cash. Some investors have been scared off by the short self life of the vehicles and VC cash has been drying up — but only to some extent.
And there are more than vehicle costs to concern investors in the e-scooter companies. The longer the scooters are on the streets, the more accidents occur. That is exposing a confusing legal situation for both riders and the companies, according to CityLab:
Because it’s such a new landscape, the body of precedent is small. [Washington D.C. lawyer Paul] Zukerberg’s firm is in the process of representing one person who was “very, very seriously injured” on a scooter in D.C., he says. But “the duties and responsibilities of the various parties with regard to these various parties are not at all clear.” And applying traditional categories of law to new inventions and public policy decisions is difficult to do gracefully.
The growing pains continue for scooter companies, but the loss of the extra cash for the purpose of building bike lanes is regrettable. There is another option, of course. Local governments leverage all kinds of fees on permitting and registrations of the various vehicles that use city streets in order to generate funds for services and maintenance. Seeing that the scooter companies have managed to secure a solid and presumably profitable foothold in Dallas, perhaps it is time for the Dallas City Council to take up Bird’s idea and make it their own, charging scooter companies a fee per scooter that could be dedicated for creating better bike, pedestrian, and scooter infrastructure.
As someone who rides the scooters fairly often and has had a few close calls while sharing the streets with Dallas’ aggressive drivers, bike lanes would undoubtedly make the entire experience of using the scooters safer and more pleasant. And if the companies are worried about the potential legal fallout from an increasing number of accidents, a small fee to help make streets safer for their products should be seen as a hedge against potential catastrophe.