Bird is the Word: Electric Scooters are Coming to Chi-Town

Scott Kitun

April 30, 2019 · 5 minutes read

 

Transit planners call it the “first mile/last mile” problem. There’s usually a gap between one mode of transportation and your ultimate destination. It’s a headache, but it’s a fact of life in most urban areas, particularly Chicago.

 

Chances are, you already know this. The El is a 20-minute walk from your apartment. Your office is just a bit too far from the Metra. Getting around the Loop at lunch hour? Better have your running shoes on.

 

Without many dedicated bike lanes, cycling is for the brave – and the casually dressed. And the challenge of driving, if you choose to accept it, is not only traffic, it’s parking.

 

In recent years, the sharing economy burst on the scene to fill those gaps, each with their own niche. Uber is a global juggernaut. Lyft competes for market share in the U.S. and Canada. Bike-share companies like Chicago’s Divvy are fixtures in cities worldwide.

 

Dockless, electric scooters are the latest phenomenon to hit the streets, with hyper-competitive California-based startups Bird and Lime leading the pack. They first caught on in cities like Santa Monica and San Diego. Today, Bird alone is in 100+ cities worldwide. But will it take flight in Chicago?

 

Brandon Pollak, Bird’s Director of Global Civic Engagement and Strategy, thinks so. “Just over a year ago, we weren’t even talking about scooters,” he says. But as a native midwesterner, he sees massive potential here.

 

“It could be incredibly powerful and transform how people get around the city. Chicago is certainly an exciting city for us.”

 

Ride on the fly

 

The cost to unlock Bird scooters is typically $1, plus 20 cents per minute of use, controlled through an app you download to your smartphone. But unlike bikeshare stations, scooters in most cities are just … everywhere.

 

Pick one up, tap the app to unlock it, and go. With a speed capped at 15 miles per hour and a learning curve close to zero, scooters have evolved from techie novelty to mainstream, traffic-busting earth-friendly alternative.

 

It’s also super fun.

 

“People talk about how riding a Bird brings them back to their childhood,” Brandon says. “There’s this incredible emotional connection to it. The first time anyone rides Bird, there’s this excitement of like, how do we get this in our city?”

 

Brandon sees scooters’ “sweet spot” as the two-miles-or-less gap. “That’s why they’re unique and people are so drawn to them. It’s this particular point where you don’t want to spend the money to jump in a rideshare or a taxi and go such a short distance. Plus, you’re just going to potentially sit in traffic. But you might be going somewhere that’s a little bit too far to walk.

 

“It’s a gap in micro-mobility, and it’s one we’ve identified people want. We see the demand, and it’s not a fad.”

 

Giving a hoot

 

In its quest to dominate the market, the company has ruffled a few feathers along the way. Homeowners find them on their lawns and consider them a nuisance. Helmetless riders have accidents, mostly due to the cars they’re sharing the road with. Some cities have banned Bird and its competitors; others shut them down after a pilot period.

 

But Brandon is confident that Bird will continue to spread its wings. Merely two years after their launch, Bird has raised more than $415 million in an effort to expand.

Brandon’s job is to help that happen by advocating for safety and working with communities from day one.

 

“Safety is our top priority,” says Brandon. “We’re taking the lead on that.”

 

Riders must be at least 18 and have a driver’s license, he says. In addition to heavy encouragement to wear helmets, the company established a global safety board and increased the app’s emphasis on riding responsibly.

 

That includes a push toward responsible parking. “We want them off the sidewalk,” says Brandon.

 

The nest big thing

 

“In the past, some of the rideshare companies basically just gave a middle finger to each city and said, we’re just going to go operate,” he says. “That doesn’t work anymore.”

 

What does work, he says, is “spending time connecting with everyone from the business and tech communities to foundations, nonprofits and churches. Talking to disability advocates, safety advocates … engaging and educating them on our vision and how we see scooters benefiting them.”

 

Brandon tells a story about a twentysomething Indianapolis woman with MS whose access to Bird is a game-changer. “It’s sometimes difficult for her to walk even a couple of blocks, especially in the summer when it’s hot and her symptoms flare up,” he says. “Bird empowers her to get around, meet her friends. She said, it makes me feel like everybody else.”

 

In a city like Chicago where vast swaths of the city are underserved by mass transit and even rideshares, “Bird could be a reliable mode of transportation that is highly affordable for people of all demographics, whether they’re in disadvantaged areas or have certain medical conditions.”

 

Flight plan

 

Both Bird and Lime tested the scooters here last year, but they haven’t gotten the green light just yet. Late last year, Mayor Emanuel launched a task force to study electric scooters, autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing and other alt-transportation in Chicago.

Now, the results are in, and a 2019 pilot is in the works. “The city is working pretty hard,” says Brandon. “Hopefully we’ll get them on the road as soon as possible.”

 

Because of, well, bureaucracy, the launch date is still TBA, as is the number of scooters. “It depends –– every city is different,” he explains. Due to regulations (or lack thereof) of all kinds, plus the size of the market, the number can range from 100 to 10,000.

 

Whether scooters scatter citywide or are cooped up at the lakefront, “We want people to feel as if Bird is a local company,” Brandon says. “We want riders as well as  government officials to say that we’ve gone above and beyond to make scooters work in their city.”

 

As a former entrepreneur and politico who has worked at the nexus of innovation and government for years, Brandon says that the level of excitement around Bird is unique. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. I think it’s a testament to the impact we can have.

 

“This is a great company and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m excited for what the future holds.”