The impossible-to-ignore flock of Bird rental scooters that swarmed Columbia last week promise convenient, eco-friendly alternatives for local travel — but the Santa Monica-based business has ruffled some feathers along the way. As part of the company’s national pop-up college tour, the trending transportation business sprinkled its sleek scooters across Columbia and the MU campus. The company has no formal contract to do business at the university, and with city ordinances coming into play, the future of Bird in Columbia is hazy for the time being. City spokesperson Brian Adkisson said in an email Wednesday that Bird scooters are currently under review by the city’s legal department.
“Our mission at Bird is to provide an affordable and reliable transportation option to communities everywhere," a Bird spokesperson said via email on Friday. "We have had conversations with University and City officials, and we look forward to continuing this partnership so that Bird is a reliable, affordable, and environmentally friendly transportation option for students and faculty."
I gave the scooters a try while they're still freely roaming the streets, and I definitely understood the perks. But this alternative transportation comes with quite the logistical web to untangle. As I cruised past my slower counterparts and caught a breeze on my eight-year-old self’s dream ride, it was easy to forget that I had suddenly become a controversy on wheels. So whether you’ve already hitched a ride on the hot-button roller or not, here’s what you need to know about Bird.
Bird scooters offer a quick way to get from point A to point B without the woes of gassing up or parallel parking. With the download of an app, the snap of a QR code and a few quick pushes to get rolling, the scooters can zoom up to 15 mph to any destination of your choice — or at least any destination within the 15-mile battery lifespan. Bird charges a $1 fee for unlocking the scooter and 20 cents for every minute ridden.
You’ve probably already seen them racing past you all around town, but these scooters are somewhat hard to snag for yourself if you’re on campus or at a popular spot downtown. Unlike Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing apps, this tool is not there at your beck and call. The Bird app offers a map to see where available scooters are currently located, and users have to go find the scooters themselves. Business Loop 70 and the northern area of downtown seem to be hotspots for available scooters in Columbia, but even those locations sometimes lack available rides.
You can use the scooters and park them as you please, and they require next to no effort. Bonus: You can save yourself the sweat of pedaling your bike. All it takes is a valid driver’s license, though you must be 18 or older to operate the Bird.
Bird encourages riders to wear helmets in its introductory safety instructions on the app, and riders can apply to get a free helmet from the company if they pitch in for shipping. Riders are required by law to wear a helmet when operating a motorized vehicle, but this doesn’t appear to be a popular choice among Bird-users. The scooters also pose a risk for pedestrians if driven on the sidewalk.
“I feel like if it’s used responsibly, then it should be ok because people get around on bikes and mopeds around town a lot,” Moberly Area Community College student Dakota Crider says. “I mostly just use it to get around downtown. I just think it’s kind of fun, so whenever I see one, I’m always really excited to just grab it and hop on.”
While there is not much data out yet on the number of accidents caused by Bird scooters, stories have began popping up in various cities about Bird scooter accidents. These incidents have raised the question: Will Bird assume responsibility?
Safety concerns aside, let’s be honest — these motorized scooters are a blast. They provide a simple rush, and you’re free to zoom around as long as your wallet (and the battery) allows.
Convenient as the grab-and-go system might be, scooters left strewn on sidewalks become obstacles for pedestrian traffic and can create accessibility challenges if they are blocking building entryways or accessible pathways.
Bird announced a new platform on Wednesday, however, called GovTech — a set of products to help cities create no-ride and no-parking zones, or "geo-fences," as well as analyze data from Bird scooters to understand local transportation needs and provide riders with a platform to report irresponsible riding or parking.
Some final considerations:
All laws for motorized vehicles apply, so Bird scooters are not allowed on trails, and you can still get ticketed for operating one under the influence of alcohol (so don’t get any ideas for your game day trek to the tailgates.) But while the Birds are still allowed in Columbia, go forth and fly.