By Rachel Erani
Over the past few years, short-term rental bicycles, cars, and now scooters have become a normal part of city life. Some cities even subsidize short-term vehicle rental programs in an effort to support sustainable transportation. However, short-term scooter rental companies, particularly Bird, have been clashing with local authorities over their practice of guerilla implementation. Bird places its fleets of scooters for rent in new cities without applying for permits or business licenses. City officials object to this practice because it deprives them of the opportunity to regulate Bird and implement safety measures. Cities such as Boston, Cambridge, Denver, and Milwaukee have banned Bird because of its failure to comply with business licensing and permitting requirements. Some argue that the guerilla method is innovative and efficient, while others see it as an unnecessary violation of the law.
Bird has worked with some cities and universities to initiate its services, but its main implementation method is releasing its scooters into new cities and making them immediately available for consumers to rent via the Bird mobile application. This causes trouble for cities by increasing sidewalk traffic and violating local safety requirements. Bird does not have docking stations for its scooters, so it allows riders to leave scooters wherever they like when they finish their rides. This crowds sidewalks creates a danger of people tripping on the scooters, obstructs businesses, and makes it impossible for people in wheelchairs to navigate the sidewalks. Also, Bird’s scooters themselves violate safety regulations; for example, Massachusetts requires all motorized scooters to have brake lights and turn signals. Bird scooters have neither. Although Bird has flown under the radar of local officials in some cities and received legal status after placing its scooters in others (such as Kansas City), its guerilla implementation has cost it relationships, business, and even some of its scooters, which were impounded after cities such as Somerville, Massachusetts issued cease and desist letters to the company, which it ignored.
It’s not just local governments that are frustrated by Bird – residents and even doctors in cities where Bird operates are up in arms about its safety faults and crowding of their sidewalks. They share stories of accidents involving Bird scooters and Bird’s reluctance to help those injured while riding its scooters. Bird executives may feel powerful when they ignore local laws, but they are also destroying relationships with city officials and potential consumers.
So what should Bird do to make peace with its critics? First, follow the rules like everyone else; if every other large corporation manages to apply for business licenses and permits for each of its locations and vehicles, Bird can too. Add the features necessary in order to comply with local laws and ordinances if you want to do business in areas where the rules are in place. Next, work with cities to address their concerns. This will rebuild relationships and could even lead to government subsidies for Bird. Third, lobby for local laws and ordinances supporting Bird’s endeavors.
Within the past few weeks, Bird has taken measures to improve its relationship with local governments, most notably by creating its GovTech Platform to allow cities to access data about scooter usage within their boundaries. Bird executives even started an S.O.S., or Save our Sidewalks campaign, asking other scooter rental companies to pledge to collect all of their vehicles every night, only increase scooter supply in proportion to demand, and offering cities that allow their scooters $1 per scooter per day. These are certainly steps in the right direction, but it will take more than that to repair the collateral damage from Bird’s prior guerilla strategy. Bird is still banned in several cities and awaits city council hearings and investigations from state departments of transportations in numerous states.
Despite the ease and (limited) success of guerilla implementation methods, Bird has ultimately been forced to follow local laws and to make amends with local governments. Ignoring laws may seem convenient at first, but the prices paid in remedial measures and in relationships demonstrate the importance of deference to the law. With measures to review Bird’s ability to release its scooters coming soon, such as a “Comprehensive Review” of Bird by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and a Boston City Council meeting about the issue on September 17th, the expansion of its flock hangs in the balance.
Student Bio: Rachel Erani is a second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School. She is currently a staff member on the Journal of High Technology Law. She holds a Bachelor of the Arts in Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a double major in Psychology.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.