The electric, dockless Bird scooters are being used around Baltimore. (Jay Reed & Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
There’s a new way to get around downtown. California-based tech startup Bird Rides Inc. has hatched a fleet of over 60 battery-powered scooters for short-term rental around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Riding is a piece of cake — simply download the Bird app, enter your credit card and driver’s license information, and you’re ready to unlock any available scooter you see by scanning a unique QR code posted on the handlebar. Rides cost $1.00 to start and $0.15 per minute after that.
As a “car-less” (not “careless!”) downtown millennial, I love the concept of Bird. I can now ride from my apartment in Otterbein to Harbor East or Fells Point in half the time it takes to walk. Since its launch, Downtown residents have had a hard time keeping their hands off Bird scooters. Last weekend, dozens of new riders could be seen awkwardly scooting around the side streets of Federal Hill. But is Bird just a toy, or could it become a lasting component of Baltimore’s struggling public transportation infrastructure? So far, there seem to be more questions than answers.
As with any mode of transportation, safety will be key for Bird’s long-term success. A Bird scooter travels up to 15 miles per hour, and a novice rider can be up and running in as little as five minutes. Bird advises riders to follow all local traffic rules, including not riding on sidewalks, but few riders heed that warning. Even more concerning — of the dozens of Bird scooter riders I’ve spotted over the past week, I’ve yet to see a single rider wear a helmet. This comes after numerous safety warnings from Bird itself, including a click-through screen on the app requiring all riders to verify they will never operate a scooter without one. In a city not exactly known for smooth roads, and still struggling to establish even a basic bike lane network, a helmet is probably a good idea. How and when Bird will own up to this dangerous reality remains to be seen. Numerous Bird scooter-related accidents have already been reported in cities across the country.
Another challenge for Bird is controlling where its scooters are picked up and dropped off. Riders leave them all over Downtown after arriving at their destinations, blocking sidewalks, businesses and even handicap-accessible ramps. Public outcry over “scooter litter,” among other concerns, has prompted Bird bans in several other launch cities. In Baltimore, Bird advises riders to park near bike racks wherever possible. Additionally, a map within the app specifically designates certain sites around the city as red “No Ride” zones. However, it’s not at all clear how these regions were selected or to what extent city government and other stakeholders were involved. The University of Maryland Medical Center is a designated “No Ride” zone, but The Johns Hopkins Hospital is not. Wyman Park Dell and the Baltimore Museum of Art are ride-free zones as well, but not the Walters Art Museum or Mount Vernon Place.
In a statement to The Sun, Baltimore’s Department of Transportation claimed to be actively monitoring Bird’s roll-out, but according to a recent blog post by local insider and community architect Klaus Philipsen, “The City wasn't involved at all. The scooters just showed up.”
Finally, the question we’ve all been waiting for — will our beloved Birds suffer the same theft and vandalism as so many ill-fated Baltimore Bike Share cycles following that program’s roll-out last year? As reported by The Sun, Baltimore’s Bike Share was forced to temporarily shut down after a glitch in its bicycle locking mechanism allowed users to grab and go without paying. Bird’s electric motor will not operate without a verified user, but scooters can still be rolled-off or carried away with relative ease. A friend recently tracked down a Bird scooter for a mid-day ride, using the app’s real-time map, only to find that the previous user had taken the Bird inside his or her home and left it, presumably for use later that day. Bird scooters are collected nightly for charging and storage, and each scooter is outfitted with a GPS device. However, it remains to be seen if those measures are enough to keep Bird safe in Baltimore.
Bird scooters are fun, versatile, and cheap to ride. They are a high-tech upgrade for Baltimore’s increasingly hip downtown core, and they have the potential to fill persistent gaps in our public transportation network. However, whether Bird has staying power is still a big question mark.