Last Thursday, Santa Cruz residents woke up with a new form of on-demand transportation available with a few clicks of a smartphone. Black and white, two-wheeled electric scooters sporting the logo of Santa Monica startup Bird appeared on corners around town overnight.
The catch: Santa Cruz officials say they never gave the company the green light to launch, setting off a chain of events that is the latest skirmish in a broader battle between fast-moving transportation startups and local governments struggling to address evolving mobility demands.
“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 email Thursday morning.
The startup, which has raised $415 million from venture capitalists to bring its on-demand scooters to the masses, declined to answer questions about how its electric scooters were launched locally. A spokesperson told GT in a statement last Thursday that, “Santa Cruz is a forward-thinking city that shares Bird’s vision of getting cars off the road to reduce traffic and carbon emissions.”
Though Bird and competitors like Uber-owned Lime have attracted controversy about safety and neighborhood nuisances in other cities, the statement adds that Bird hoped to “work closely with city leaders so that we can help the entire community more easily get around town.”
But the city still wasn’t buying it. A press release from the city manager’s office said that a cease-and-desist letter was sent to Bird the same day the scooters were set free in town, giving the startup until midnight on Sept. 13 to remove the devices from all public sidewalks or rights-of-way in the city. The move, the statement continued, followed steps taken in San Diego, Boston, Nashville and Fresno to issue similar letters, restrict scooter use or ban the devices.
When scooters were still on Santa Cruz streets after the deadline last week, the city followed through on a promise to take action.
“The city is impounding the scooters,” City Spokesperson Joyce Blaschke told GT on Monday, though it is not clear when or how Bird might reclaim the devices. “They’re following the cease-and-desist letter.”
There may still be a happy ending for scooter enthusiasts. Bird told GT on Monday that the startup expects to meet with city officials this week.
“Bird hopes to work closely with city officials to develop a framework that works for everyone so that the Santa Cruz community can have access to our fun and affordable transportation option,” a spokesperson said in an email. “We are in touch with city officials and we look forward to meeting with them this week.”
As for when residents might see scooters back on the street, City Manager Martín Bernal made it clear in a statement last week that companies would be wise to adhere to local business laws if they want to stay up and running.
“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,” Bernal said.
The model of insta-renting electric devices 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 Santa Cruz since earlier this year. Similarly, 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 cents per minute.
When the scooters first appeared last week, many were neatly arranged 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. By Tuesday, the app was still active in Santa Cruz, but showed only a few available scooters across town, including one approaching Scotts Valley. Bird declined to comment on its future plans in the city.
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 urban sprawl.
Trouble tends to arise with e-scooters in particular because of the devices’ top speeds of around 20 miles per hour, sometimes making it dicey to share bike lanes or sidewalks, and providers’ reluctance to police their users. In addition to a reputation for asking cities for forgiveness rather than permission to launch scooter-sharing systems, Bird and its competitors have argued that they shouldn’t be responsible for users who ride recklessly or leave devices in the public right of way.
In San Jose, where Bird and Lime have been operating e-scooter sharing systems since spring, officials say they don’t have enough cops for regular traffic stops, let alone scooter incidents. Instead of banning the devices, the city has allowed them to be used while crafting scooter-specific traffic regulations expected later this fall, said Colin Heyne, a spokesman for the San Jose Department of Transportation.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to allow these innovations to happen on the public right of way, just to make sure they’re safe and responsible as they happen,” Heyne said in a May interview.
Early last year, Bird Founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden, who previously worked at both Uber and Lyft, released the startup’s own “Save Our Sidewalks” (S.O.S.) pledge. He committed Bird to only introducing new scooters if devices are ridden three or more times per day, paying cities $1 per vehicle per day for traffic infrastructure, and ensuring that scooters are picked up every night (usually by paid contractors called “Bird hunters”).
Competitor company Lime has also floated the idea of a Hunger Games-esque scenario where users are asked to report other users. Lime already requires users to submit a photo of how they park their scooter in order for a trip to officially end and billing to stop. The company has also considered asking riders to submit photos of other riders’ parking fails, or offering yet-undefined “incentives” for good behavior, said Sam Dreiman, Lime’s director of strategic development for California, in a May interview.
Santa Cruz Transportation Planner Claire Fliesler told GT in June 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.
In a departure from San Jose’s approach, San Francisco temporarily banned the devices following 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.