The first sign of the impending two-wheeled invasion was a series of targeted ads on Instagram.
“Become a charger today!” read the cheery post, featuring a picture of a smiling, helmeted woman on a large black scooter.
The problem? The business, Bird, which operates one of the largest electric scooter rental businesses in the country, doesn’t officially operate in San Luis Obispo. Yet.
At the start of the week, the website for Bird listed only a couple of California cities among their locations. By Thursday, it listed 18 cities — including San Luis Obispo — as part of its “biggest revolution in transportation since the dawn of the Jet Age.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
But the revolution has been delayed here on the Central Coast.
KCBX reported that the company planned a “rogue launch” in the city for Thursday, but that launch was delayed indefinitely after city officials contacted the group about its unapproved plans. (The business is somewhat infamous for “rogue-launching” in some cities by simply dropping the scooters onto the streets, without seeking prior city approval.)
On Friday, interim deputy city manager Greg Hermann said the city is planning to meet with Bird representatives sometime next week to learn more about the company’s plans to launch in San Luis Obispo.
“Just like any other business, they would need the appropriate license and permits to operate in the city,” he said. “A part of that includes ensuring rider and community safety along with compliance with other relevant laws.
“We look forward to working collaboratively with the company and community in determining the fit for our city.”
Bird spokeswoman Mackenzie Long on Friday said the company “looks forward to meeting the San Luis Obispo city officials so that we can soon bring our affordable, environmentally friendly service to the SLO community.”
“We are committed to working closely with every city in which we operate, and we are thrilled to kick off this process with San Luis Obispo next week,” she said.
Long did not respond to follow-up requests about how many scooters the company intended to bring to San Luis Obispo.
So what’s the big deal?
The scooters have inspired an intense hatred among some disgruntled pedestrians since its launch in 2017 — for evidence check out the Instagram account Birdgraveyard, which delights in sharing videos of people destroying or damaging the scooters in cities across the country, including lighting them on fire and smearing them with feces.
Conversely, the business has been hailed as an environmentally friendly, inexpensive and convenient transportation option for on-the-go travelers.
The premise is simple: Download the app, which shows you available scooters are in your area. Once you locate a scooter, you pay $1 to unlock it and then 15 cents per minute after that for your ride. The electric scooters can travel up to 15 miles per hour, and riders are required by law to wear a helmet (though that could change soon).
Once riders are done with the scooter, they lock it via the app, and it’s available for the next user.
Paid chargers can then gather up low-battery scooters and charge them overnight at their homes, using special charging equipment Bird sends to those who sign up. They then release them the next morning at designated “nests” around town, fully charged.
Pros and cons
SLO County Regional Rideshare Program Manager Mallory Jenkins said she felt the scooters would offer a “really fun and affordable means of transportation that’s an alternative to the traditional, you know, riding alone in a car.”
“The more we can encourage these other transportation options, the better,” she said. “Our hope is companies like Bird can collaborate with our local jurisdictions and find solutions that work for everyone. The goal is always to offer more modes of transportation, but not to offset that with more problems.”
But the scooters have been called a public nuisance in some cities, with people reporting injuries from both riding and tripping over the motorized vehicles.
Part of the fuss comes from the business’s “leave ‘em where you want to” model: The scooters are dockless, meaning people can pick one up and then leave it anywhere once they are done with it. This has led to complaints of Bird scooters littering the sidewalks and blocking businesses.
(For its part, the company recommends parking next to a bike rack whenever possible. They also tell users in the app to use bike lanes and to not ride on sidewalks.)
Some cities aren’t happy
To say electric scooters have been divisive in other communities would be an understatement.
Los Angeles recently launched new rules setting up permits and speed limits for scooter businesses after months of complaints about the influx of scooter incidents around the city, while San Francisco banned most businesses at the start of the summer before eventually electing to allow some — but not Bird, or its major competitor Lime — to operate in the city.
Fresno demanded that Bird cease-and-desist this week, asking the company to remove all the scooters it dropped on the town in August until they can come to an agreement on operating.
“We want to be business-friendly — but friendliness goes both ways,” Mayor Lee Brand told The Fresno Bee. “We will continue to embrace different forms of transportation, but not at the expense of safety or public process.”
The Fresno scooters first showed up as part of a “Bird University Pop-up Tour” that brought the vehicles to 150 universities and colleges around the country this August.
What about Cal Poly?
The scooters probably won’t be showing up on Cal Poly’s campus any time soon, though.
Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said Friday that a businesses would need to get permission before operating on campus, and that he was unaware of any discussions underway with Bird currently.
Lazier also noted that the campus has a policy that prohibits “the use of skateboards, roller skates, roller blades, coasters or similar devices,” which he believed could prohibit scooters from campus.
Mayor Heidi Harmon said she has some questions about the business that have to be answered before she could support it in San Luis Obispo, namely the safety of its operations and whether local businesses could perform the same service.
“I believe there are local bike shops around that are doing the same thing, and as mayor of San Luis Obispo, I would rather support local here,” she said. “With some of the problems people have experienced in other communities, I think it’s important to have local folks here who are invested in the process.”
Harmon — an electric bike rider herself — said she would need more information about the scooters before riding one herself.
“Um, we’ll have to see,” she said with a laugh.
Local news matters: We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. Support us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal