Bird electric scooters alight in Detroit

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Sunny Patel, 21, of Troy takes a Bird scooter for a spin in downtown Detroit Friday. The new rentable Bird scooters are now available via smart phone app in Detroit on Friday, July 27, 2018. Bird is a dockless scooter-sharing company based in Santa Monica, California.

There's one more option to travel the final mile to your Detroit destination.

Bird Rides Inc., an electric-scooter sharing service, began testing a pilot fleet Friday in Detroit's downtown, Corktown, Eastern Market and Midtown. The Bird scooters, which can travel up to 15 miles per hour, are meant for distances too long to walk, but too short to drive.

Jacob Amez zipped up and down West Fort on Friday afternoon, after he and four fellow Quicken Loans interns found one of the standup Bird scooters parked at the corner of Cass.

"It was awesome!" the 19-year-old from Macomb Township said. "It was super fast."

Bird riders can download to their smartphones the Bird app, which is the No. 9 free travel and local app in the Google Play store. That lets them locate a scooter — it even lets them know how much charge remains in the battery. When they get to the scooter, they scan a barcode that "unlocks" the electric motor. Riders can then travel in bike lanes, in the rightmost lane in streets or on sidewalks when doing so will not disturb pedestrians, according to the city's rules.

The app-map showed the locations of more than 35 scooters in Detroit on Friday.

Since launching in September 2017, Bird has provided more than a million rides in more than 20 cities nationwide. But  in some cities they've met backlash for jostling pedestrians on crowded sidewalks and other misuse. Detroit last week published an online memo outlining how the city's code applies to the scooters.

"We knew they would eventually come to Detroit," said Mark de la Vergne, Detroit's chief of mobility innovation, who added the company did let the city know the scooters were coming. He said Detroit adopted the best practices of the cities that already have them

A Bird representative said in an email that the company filed the "necessary paperwork to operate as a business in Detroit."

"We are looking forward to testing our affordable transportation option with the people and communities of Detroit, as they recognize the need for an accessible and reliable transit system," the representative said. "Our mission is to get people out of their cars, reduce traffic and congestion and cut carbon emissions."

Rides start at $1 plus 15 cents per minute of operation, though Bird will waive the $1 starting fee for U.S. military members and veterans, as well as those on state or federal assistance. The scooters can go about 15 miles on a charge.

Unlike MoGo, the bicycle-share program in Detroit, Bird's scooters are not locked at specified stations. Instead, riders go wherever it is they need to go, and then leave them parked where they aren't a nuisance. The next rider can then find it on the app to take it to the next destination.

Detroit's rules say riders should park their scooters upright on a sidewalk at least 6 feet  from streets, driveways, public art, fire hydrants and other objects along the pavement. Violators may receive a misdemeanor with fines up to $500 or 90 days in prison.

Riders must be at least 18 years old, upload a valid driver's license, and consent to a safety agreement to use the scooters. The app has a tutorial and each scooter has safety instructions. Bird says it will provide free helmets to those who request on the Bird app, though the city does not require one.

Rides are available only from 7 a.m. through sunset. Each night, hired chargers pick up Birds for storage, charging and repairs. In the morning, they place the scooters at "nests" where riders can pick one up. People can apply online to be chargers; the job pays $5 to $20 per scooter.

In some cities, the scooters have caused problems. Milwaukee fined a Bird rider nearly $100 for hitting a pedestrian, and the city has filed a suit against the company for ignoring requests to cease operations there. Bird pulled its scooters from Nashville, after the city impounded 411 scooters for impeding public right-of-ways, but it is working with the company to develop regulations. The scooters returned to St. Louis this week after the public service board approved the company; the week before, the city said they had appeared illegally.

The company's "Save Our Sidewalks Pledge" promises to increase its scooter supply in a city only when its vehicles are used at least three times per day, to remove "underutilized" vehicles, and to share its data with cities. Additionally, Bird says it will remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments to promote bike lanes and safe riding.

"We’re always looks for more options for people to get around," the city's de la Vergne said. "We’ll be watching to see how they get adopted and used."

Lime, another company that offers electric scooter and bike rentals, said it is not planning on expanding to Detroit at this time.

Bird comes from the ride-hailing and transportation-sharing networks movement. Travis VanderZanden, a Wisconsin native who founded the company, grew up taking the public bus with his single mother. He was Lyft's first chief operating officer and a senior executive at Uber.

Sunny Patel of Troy knew of the scooters from a friend in San Francisco. He said he was excited to try out the trendy contraption.

"It was very nostalgic," said the 21-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan. "It was like being young again in my pre-teens when I had a scooter and had to manually turn corners, and there was that one neighbor with a motorized one who was the talk of the town."

Patel said he likes that the app looks like Uber's and allows users to click on a scooter's location to see the charge it has left, though he hopes Bird adds more soon. He had to walk a few blocks to find another scooter, and by the time he got there, someone had ridden off with it.

"It's a cool concept, and I think it'll be something really good for the city," he said. "It made me excited that Detroit has this kind of thing, that we’re keeping up."

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Twitter: @BreanaCNoble