A new flock of Birds has descended on Baltimore.
They’re scattered across sidewalks, propped up against buildings, and gliding through downtown streets. Since their arrival just weeks ago, the more than 60 dockless, battery-powered scooters have become fixtures in the city.
California-based Bird, founded last year by a former executive with the rideshare platforms Uber and Lyft, is part of the latest wave of transportation startups transforming the way people get around in urban areas — and challenging local governments to create new regulations.
Baltimore officials are now scrambling to establish rules for a company that has been in the city for only three weeks.
“The city is in a bit of a spot because this is how Bird behaves,” said City Councilman Zeke Cohen, whose Southeast Baltimore district is now dotted with the standup scooters. “From my understanding, in many of the cities they are in, they essentially drop their scooters off and then the cities develop a regulatory framework.
“It’s not a great way to do business.”
Bird, based in Santa Monica, Calif., did not respond to a request to comment on Cohen’s criticism.
City transportation spokesman German Vigil said the company has not been authorized to operate the city, but is not operating illegally.
Bird has placed scooters in 18 cities in its first year of business. Some, including San Francisco and Salt Lake City, have banned the scooters temporarily to allow officials to develop guidelines for their operation. Milwaukee filed a lawsuit this month alleging that Bird has refused to suspend operations in the city, and has started to slap $98 fines on people who use the scooters.
Baltimore transportation spokeswoman Kathy Dominick said the city was not involved in the rollout of Bird scooters here.
“We are working with the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and several other stakeholders to ensure that we provide provisions to help companies like Bird operate within the law in the City of Baltimore,” she said. Until rules are established, she said, “citizens who rent the scooters should be aware that they are riding at their own risk.”
Bird bills itself as a “last mile” scooter rental service, offering a solution for traveling routes that are too short to drive but too long to walk. The machines can be rented, using a mobile app, for $1 to start plus 15 cents a minute.
Drew Bassini, 23, works for Morgan Stanley in Harbor East.
“I’m on my lunch break so, as opposed to walking or riding my bike, it’s preferable to get there quickly and not expend too much energy,” he said. “A scooter can get me from point A to B quicker.”
The shiny new scooters have quickly proved a popular mode of transport downtown. Jeremy Collins, 23, said he now sees more scooters than bikes.
“I think it’s great and much needed, especially for a city trying to rebrand as a world-class city,” Collins said. “Baltimore really needs to work on mobility and getting around, and the scooters offer a low-cost, easy-to-use way of doing that.”
Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, said the advocacy group has been in talks with city officials about dockless vehicle policy for months, but the timeline for establishing rules is unclear.
“The reality is, the bureaucracy of policy formation happens right now at a much slower pace than these companies can deploy fleets [of vehicles] in cities,” Cornish said.
Cornish said Bikemore supports the new form of microtransit — small-scale, on-demand vehicles that enable people to move through the city quickly and affordably.
The popularity of dockless vehicles comes on the heels of the growth of bikeshare programs nationwide. Bikeshare ridership increased 25 percent in 2017, according to the National Association of City Transport Officials. Forty-four percent of bicycles in bikeshare programs were dockless.
Uber and Lyft have announced plans to rent electric bikes and scooters through their apps.
Bicyclists in Maryland are not permitted to ride on sidewalks, but there is no state or city law that prohibits scooters on sidewalks.
Some motorists and pedestrians have expressed concerns for safety.
Rosalind Heid said she was almost hit by a scooter on the sidewalk on Pratt Street.
“My concern is, if I get hurt by one of these things, who pays the medical bill?” the retired railroad employee said. “It scares me they’re every place, it scares me they’re all over the sidewalk, it scares me they may hurt or kill somebody.”
Giovanna Blatterman said the scooters are a burden. She said users frequently leave scooters strewn in front of her son’s Little Italy restaurant, Cafe Gia.
“I was livid because they had pushed my flowers out of the way,” she said. “They were intruding into the passageway.
“People say they are good for business, but throwing stuff in front of your business is not good for business for me.”
Bird advises riders to leave the scooters near bike racks when they’re done, but that doesn’t always happen. The company tells users to wear helmets and stay off sidewalks, but those rules are difficult to enforce without city regulations to back them up.
In Harbor East last week, first-time rider Jonathan Menges, 23, and his sister, Lauren, 18, zipped across the street and onto the red-bricked sidewalk without helmets.
“I’ve seen enough people ride without helmets,” Jonathan said.
Bird offers helmets free to riders, but charges shipping and handling.The company says it has distributed nearly 40,000 helmets.
Bird pays local “chargers” from $5 to $20 per scooter to collect them off the street, take them home and charge them for the next day of use.
Vigil, the city transportation spokesman, said officials “see the principle in how these scooters can help.”
“We’re looking into how we can ensure the safety of residents and make sure we’re able to establish guidelines and rules for programs like this.”