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E-scooter Wars Hit Santa Cruz With Bird’s Surprise Launch

Electric scooter startup Bird makes local debut without telling city officials

Three Bird scooters parked outside Hotel Paradox on Thursday, Sept. 13. PHOTO: LAUREN HEPLER

Update, Sept. 13, 4:15 p.m. — A City of Santa Cruz press release on Thursday afternoon says that a cease-and-desist letter has been sent to Bird, giving the electric scooter startup “until midnight September 13, 2018, to remove all of their scooters from all public sidewalks and/or rights-of-way in the City.” The move, the statement continues, follows steps taken in San Diego, Boston, Nashville and Fresno to issue cease-and-desist letters, restrict scooter use or ban the devices.

“Bird’s approach is dismissive of the hundreds of businesses in Santa Cruz who play by the rules, receive proper permits and licenses, and operate legally,” City Manager Martin Bernal says in the statement. Though he adds that Santa Cruz “would have welcomed a preliminary conversation with Bird,” it is not clear how the city will approach the issue moving forward.

Original story: As of Thursday, Santa Cruz residents have a new type of on-demand transportation available with a few clicks of a smartphone—though not many locals knew it was coming.

Black and white, two-wheeled electric scooters sporting the logo of Santa Monica transportation startup Bird were neatly lined up Thursday morning in small clusters around midtown and near downtown Santa Cruz. At least three dozen scooters spread from the Westside to Seabright appeared ready to ride on the Bird mobile app as of late morning on Thursday.

The model of insta-renting electric gadgets to get from Point A to Point B will be familiar to local residents who have used the bright orange, Uber-owned Jump bikes available in town.

But the launch of e-scooters, city officials say, was more of a surprise.

“Bird hasn’t contacted anyone at the city about their program, which is apparently consistent with their business model,” City Spokesperson Eileen Cross told GT in an e-mail.

The Bird app works by allowing users to upload a credit card, use a map to locate nearby scooters, then take a picture of a code on the device to ride for $1, plus $.20 per minute.

Bird app

Taking Flight A screenshot of scooters available in Santa Cruz on the Bird app, as of Thursday, Sept. 13.

Startup database Crunchbase says Bird has raised some $415 million from venture capitalists to bring its on-demand scooters to the masses, often attracting controversy about safety and neighborhood nuisances in the process. Bird declined to answer questions on Thursday morning about how many of the scooters will be on the street in Santa Cruz, or whether the company reached out to any local officials or businesses in advance of the launch.

“Santa Cruz is a forward-thinking city that shares Bird’s vision of getting cars off the road to reduce traffic and carbon emissions,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to GT. “We are thrilled to bring our affordable, environmentally friendly last-mile transportation option here, and we hope to work closely with city leaders so that we can help the entire community more easily get around town.”

Like ridesharing providers Uber and Lyft before them, e-scooter companies are an example of the often-thorny relationship between fast-moving startups and local governments. The friction is especially obvious with transportation in California, where many environmental and social groups are already campaigning for more alternatives to notoriously car-centric development sprawl.

Where trouble tends to arise with e-scooters in particular is the devices’ 20-mile-an-hour-plus speeds, sometimes making it dicey to share bike lanes or sidewalks, and their providers’ reluctance to police users. In addition to a reputation for asking cities for forgiveness rather than permission to launch their scooter-sharing systems, Bird and competitors like Uber-backed Lime have argued that they shouldn’t be responsible for users who ride recklessly or leave devices in the public right of way. Cities like San Jose, meanwhile, have argued that they already don’t have enough cops for regular traffic stops, let alone scooter-related incidents.

In June, Santa Cruz Transportation Planner Claire Fliesler told GT that the city had no plans to pursue a scooter system, since planners were focused on building out bike sharing. Still, she said, local officials have been following the saga of e-scooters in neighboring cities.

San Francisco took the harshest approach to scooters released to the public with little or no warning to the city, banning the devices after concerns about mowing down pedestrians and sloppy parking that obstructed sidewalks. In late August, the city began allowing licensed operators back on the road, though they notably barred Bird, Lime and several other competitors from the newly legal industry.

Managing Editor at |

Lauren Hepler is the managing editor of Good Times and a reporter covering cities, jobs and housing—plus the occasional sports or agriculture story required of all Ohio natives. She has contributed to the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Slate. Lauren was previously on staff at the Silicon Valley Business Journal and is a graduate of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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