Bird’s new monthly rental program could force users and cities to reconsider e-scooters as a real mode of transportation. But there are some drawbacks.
One afternoon in late May, a Bird scooter appeared in front of my house in San Francisco. This would be considered a normal sight in many American cities, where the shared electric vehicles have been available for by-the-minute rentals since 2018. But Bird isn’t part of San Francisco’s 12-month scooter pilot program—the company is only permitted to rent its fleet of black-and-white two-wheelers cross the bay in Oakland. In San Francisco, the small number of scooters that the program permits, from rivals Spin and Scoot, are not allowed in my neighborhood.
The scooter was unusual in a few other respects: It had a Bluetooth-enabled lock and a plug-in charger attached to it, in a Bird-branded baggy. And only my phone could unlock it.
This particular Bird was a rare breed indeed—part of the company’s new monthly rental program, which debuted in two cities, San Francisco and Barcelona, in May. It represents the latest subspecies in a veritable “Cambrian explosion” of rapidly evolving little vehicles. Instead of renting a scooter by the minute, I had a personal Bird for a month—an unlimited number of rides for $25. If most e-scooter trips are like one-way car rentals, this is more like a car lease, albeit at a micro scale.
The monthly rental program came about from community interest in having access to a Bird throughout the day, a Bird spokesperson told me in an email. Bird’s menu of consumer variations is all about meeting “the needs of different commuters,” and “replacing short car trips with a platform of micro-mobility options,” the company wrote.
The monthly rental program is also a “concession to necessity,” said William Henderson, an industry insider and CEO of Ride Report, a company that helps cities manage micromobility. After being shut out of San Francisco’s scooter pilot, Bird needed a different way to maintain a presence in the tech capital. “San Francisco’s a really important city. It’s where the investors are; it’s where the early adopters largely are; there’s a lot of press,” Henderson said. (To that end, Bird recently acquired ex-rival Scoot for around $25 million, giving the company another entrée to the San Francisco market.)
So what’s it like to commit to a full-time scooter-powered lifestyle for a month? My experience with the program didn’t end exactly as planned, but I did learn a lot about my own mobility habits and preferences.
It has become an economic truism that Millennials prefer to rent everything, from clothes to furniture. But different types of rental programs create vastly different user experiences. Whereas traditional bikeshare programs are defined by going from docking station-to-station, and e-scooter rentals float docklessly in the public right of way, I primarily used my monthly scooter rental for trips to and from home: I scooted to the library, the grocery store, the mall, and to transit connections.
These trips were essentially displacing ones I would previously have taken on my bike. Using the Bird on so many familiar bike routes, I noticed some subtle, but significant distinctions between the two modes. The slower scooter maxed out below 15 miles per hour, a pace that felt uncomfortable in faster-moving traffic. On city streets where I usually can keep up with cars, I had the unpleasant sensation of vehicles whipping past at much higher speeds. But the advantages of electricity were undeniable: I never felt too tired to scooter, never thought about what I was wearing, and never worried about my bike lock, bike lock key, or detachable lights.
My Bird proved particularly helpful for getting me to and from my local BART subway station, a bit over a mile from home. Taking it on the train itself, however—something that a normal by-the-minute renter wouldn’t consider doing—turned out to be a bad idea. The top-heavy vehicle doesn’t fold up, and I had to hold on to it for the whole ride to keep it from tipping over. I quickly learned that putting the scooter into lock-mode during the trip wasn’t an option, since the slightest motion would activate its anti-theft alarms.
And my Bird had other ways of annoying other train riders. One morning, I was crossing the Bay with my Bird on BART during rush hour—already the worst time to try to take any kind of wheeled conveyance on to the crowded trains. About a minute into the journey from West Oakland to downtown San Francisco, the scooter woke up and began flashing and beeping incessantly. I tried turning it off, clamped my hand over the strobing headlight, and stuffed my thumb into the speaker, but nothing would shut it up; the beeping and flashing continued for the duration of the trip until I hauled the scooter above ground into the San Francisco sunlight.
I still don’t know exactly why it happened; my best guess is that my Bird, like a Westworld character, has some latent memories of being part of the normal, now-forbidden rental fleet, so when we traveled outside of the Oakland service area, the vehicle was obliged to alert me.
From a cost perspective, my rental was an unqualified success: Over the course of 19 days, I took 41 rides, averaging almost exactly a mile per ride. On a per-trip basis, 41 rides for $25 is a lot cheaper than the by-the-minute rentals, which usually end up somewhere in the $3 to $4 range. (Of course, in Bird-free San Francisco, none of those trips would have otherwise been taken on one of their vehicles.)
But along with the savings it delivers to heavy scooter-users, the ownership-like experience of a long-term rental does bring some of the disadvantages of ownership, too. One night, I took my Bird to the movies. When I got out, its undamaged lock remained tethered to the bike rack, but the rest of the scooter was nowhere in sight. When I opened the Bird app, I found it: It was in San Francisco’s famously sketchy Tenderloin neighborhood, which remains, even in tech-boom-era SF, something of a haven for extralegal activities. I naively followed the dot on my Bird app only to discover a sidewalk scooter chop shop, where half a dozen characters were tinkering with a flock of presumably stolen scooters.
Perhaps if it were my own $400 Xiaomi scooter, $600 Unicorn, or $1,300 Bird One, I would have pressed my investigation further. But not for my $25 monthly rental. A couple days later, I went to the Tenderloin police station and filed a report, which protected me from being liable for the $500 cost of the scooter. The cop I spoke to said scooter thefts were increasingly common.
Bird declined to share information related to the number of users who signed up for the monthly rental program, trip length and type, or rates of vehicle damage and theft. The company did say, however, that it was “very happy with the response” to the program. It remains to be seen if this kind of long-term leasing becomes a popular feature in the ever-expanding scooter-verse. It could prove to be an effective way to demonstrate the popularity of scooters (and skirt regulations) in cities like Nashville, which chased off e-scooter companies in response to safety concerns. Or it could test out a different business model that may more readily apply to new form factors—vehicle types, in micromobility speak—like the sit-down, two-seater Bird Cruiser that is set for release this summer. Monthly rentals, rather than by-the-minute rides, could facilitate different types of trips, with lower rates of vandalism damage and theft, and produce valuable user data.
For me, a monthly rental Bird wasn’t a perfect bike replacement. While it was great as a stress-free, sweat-free option for short jaunts to and from home, any trip longer than a few miles is better undertaken on a standard bicycle. But I could see myself someday investing in buying a personal scooter with higher speeds, proper turn signals, and more rugged wheels and shocks. And, of course, a better lock.
NEXT STORY: Agriculture Unleashed 320 New Inventions in 2018