'Bird' Scooters take off in Pacific Beach, but create problems for some businesses and residents

Notice anything new on the boardwalks and streets of Pacific Beach? In the last few weeks, a fleet of electric scooters has been showing up from a relatively new company called Bird. Each scooter is equipped with a GPS device, so by using a smartphone, anyone can access the scooters — called “Birds” — and take a ride.

Here’s how it works. Each morning, Birds are placed all over town in front of businesses (with their permission) and high-traffic areas. If a rider wants to rent a scooter, they pull up the app on their smartphone and find the Bird closest to them. Then they unlock it, ride to their destination, and leave it there for another renter to locate and use. Rides cost $1 up front and 15-cents per minute.

The company also requires that riders upload a valid driver’s license and confirm they are age 18 or older. In addition, Bird requires all riders to consent to a safety agreement and view an in-app tutorial on how to safely ride. The company posts safety instructions on each scooter and provides free helmets to all riders who request one.

At the end of the day (about 8 p.m.), team members pick up all the scooters and take them back to several locations to charge them and do any maintenance. Each vehicle is charged up to ride 15 miles a day. If that charge is used up before the end of the day, the scooter is picked up earlier. The next morning, the Birds are placed back out in the community for another day of renting.

The electric scooters are part of a pilot program specifically targeted to Pacific Beach. It started four weeks ago, but company representatives aren’t saying how long they’ll stick around.

Some PB residents and business owners wouldn’t mind if they don’t, but most agree that tighter regulations and increased law enforcement will be needed if they do.

Litany of complaints

At the recent PB Town Council meeting, a litany of complaints was lodged against the Bird scooter. These included: scooters left on sidewalks (blocking pedestrian traffic), on streets (blocking curb ramps) and on private property; unsafe driving in traffic; illegal driving on sidewalks; dangerous driving on the Boardwalk; underage driving and a host of others.

“They are licensed to operate but they’re not licensed to operate carte blanche,” said Lt. Erwin Manasala of the San Diego Police Department. “They have to follow the regulatory framework that’s established within the bike sharing program. If they are in violation, feel free to contact the police department and if we can take enforcement action based on complaints, we will.”

Business owners brought up concerns over the unfair competitive advantage given Bird over rental operators that pay property rent, taxes and other fees, as well as the makeshift repair shops erected on sidewalks to fix broken scooters, oils and solvents dripping to the ground, that would garner storefront operators hefty fines, if not get their business license revoked.

“Right now, in order to operate, you just need a business license,” said Monique Tello, an aide from District 2 City Council member Lorie Zapf’s office. “So they kind of did what Uber did.”

Out of the 17 questions and comments raised about the Bird scooters during the meeting, only one was favorable, but solely in the context of reducing car traffic and related pollution. The consensus was that rules clearly addressing the numerous problems were required if this Bird was going to fly in PB.

“As it unfolds, we’re looking into some regulatory work, but it is staff recommendation that we don’t have enough data to do anything at this moment,” Tello said. “There’s pros and there’s cons in this and we’re listening to both of them.”

Beach community targets

Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden started the operation in Santa Monica last September, then expanded it to Venice Beach in Los Angeles, and now Pacific Beach. However, the rental startup sparked a legal battle in Santa Monica, where city officials filed a criminal complaint against the company, accusing it of operating without proper permits and owing more than $6,000 in fines.

The lawsuit was resolved Feb. 14, with Bird agreeing to secure the proper licenses to operate there and to pay more than $300,000 in fines. “Under the agreement, the city agreed to dismiss the nine original misdemeanor counts, and the company agreed to plead no contest to a single infraction of the city's municipal code,” Bird spokesman Marcus Reese said in a statement. As far as San Diego is concerned, Reese said: “We have a business license to operate in San Diego.”

Despite the legal battles, VanderZanden has always had a vision for alternative modes of transportation. He developed an early passion for transportation riding along with his mother, a public bus driver in Appleton, Wisconsin. He then went on to be a pioneer in car ridesharing, serving as the first COO of Lyft and as vice president of driver growth for Uber. VanderZanden has lived in San Diego and has an interest in bringing this form of ride-sharing here on a permanent basis.

Bird’s research has shown that electric scooters are more desirable than bikes because they require less effort. The majority of its customers are women who just want to get from point A to point B without getting sweaty while maybe wearing heels. The electric scooters are also easier for seniors who may have physical limitations.

According to Bird board member David Sacks: “Bird is solving the last mile of sustainable transport. It’s convenient, it’s green, it alleviates traffic, and makes cities more livable. This product has the potential to transform urban areas.”

For more information or to download the app, go to birdo.com

—Steven Mihailovich contributed to this report.

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