Ask ELi: What's the Deal with All the Scooters?

Monday, September 10, 2018, 10:44 am
By: 
Jessy Gregg and Ann Nichols

Above: A Bird scooter left at the corner of Kedzie and Beech Streets over the weekend. Photo by Christopher Wardell.

Starting last Friday, several readers contacted us to ask “What’s with the Bird scooters” that have popped up suddenly downtown?

Here’s what we know so far.

Bird is one of several national companies promoting shared use electric scooters. Users unlock the scooter through an app and then pay $1 plus 15 cents per minute to use them. They’re already operating in many major cities, although the company’s habit of entering a market by dropping the scooters into cities without consulting local officials first has gotten them into hot water with Denver, Cleveland, and other metropolitan areas.

According to a statement on the City of East Lansing’s Facebook page, city officials weren’t consulted in this case either.

“We've received several inquiries about the Bird scooters in downtown East Lansing. The City was not notified by the company prior to these arriving in the downtown's public right-of-way and our staff is currently looking at how to address the issue. Our staff is aware that there have been some community concerns and feedback has been passed along to the appropriate staff members. For anyone who chooses to use these scooters in the meantime, we ask that they be operated in a safe manner with pedestrian safety in mind. It is illegal to operate these vehicles under the influence or recklessly/carelessly and operators can be prosecuted for those violations.”

Most of the comments on that post centered around the problem of where the Bird scooters are being left, which is often in the middle of sidewalks. That has been a major complaint in the cities where Bird scooters have caused controversy. The scooters are electric but there are no docking stations to leave them in. Instead, riders park them wherever they are when they finish their ride, and another user departing from the same area can locate and pick them up using the GPS system that is part of the app.

The scooters are collected daily by Bird employees, called “bird hunters,” who collect the vehicles and charge them with chargers provided by the company before returning them to designated pick-up areas, called “nests,” so they can be used again. (You can read more information about “bird spotting” in this article from the Atlantic.)

Bird’s website features a prominent splash page promoting the app required to unlock them, but a company statement further down the page states, “We work closely with cities to help make transportation better and more environmentally friendly.” East Lansing is not on their list of cities where scooters are available.

Bird also provides a few safety guidelines for operation under the “how it works” tab, which instructs users on how to find and unlock a Bird Scooter using their app. “Bring your own helmet to stay safe while you ride. Required by law.”

According to the “safety” tab on their website, Bird will supply a free helmet to all active riders who are willing to cover the shipping costs.

Riders are instructed not to ride on public sidewalks unless local law allows, and to park the vehicles out of the public right-of-way, near the curb, or near bike racks. The site also states that users must be at least 18 years old with a valid driver’s license, cautions users not to wear headphones, and asks them to follow all traffic rules, including street signs and road signs.

ELi reached out to the East Lansing Police Department to find out how rules regarding these vehicles might be enforced.

Deputy Chief Steve Gonzales responded via email, “This is something the city, as a whole, has been working on since Friday morning when they began to appear. We've been in contact with the City Attorney's office and are working on a means by which to address the issue. I have a meeting later today and will hopefully be able to provide specific answers to your questions this afternoon.”

When contacted by ELi, East Lansing City Council member Shanna Draheim responded that she is aware of the scooters and has discussed them with George Lahanas, East Lansing City Manager. She’s planning on raising the issue at City Council's work session on Tuesday evening (tomorrow).