It’s become impossible to ignore the surge of ridesharing options in our nation’s cities. Now flocks of (along scooters by companies) are zipping around some of the U.S.’s biggest cities.
Sharable electric scooters are the latest entrants to an ever-growing ridesharing community that's seeking to revolutionize the way we get around cities. But these scooters, like the Ubers and Lyfts that came before them, are meeting their own share of controversy. In San Francisco this week, all the shareable scooter as the city tries to figure out how to deal with them.
Is this really the future? I love cars—always have. But I wanted to try out the scooter lifestyle and find out whether these dinky rides really could meet a person's urban transportation needs. So I decided to stow my four wheels in the garage for 48 hours and test out Bird’s vision for human mobility.
Here's what I love (and hate) about the scooter world.
Bird Is the Word
Bird follows the standard Silicon Valley M.O.—set up shop in a new city first, ask questions later. Such a cavalier business strategy has and in recent months, especially in San Francisco, where Bird operates around 1,600 scooters and some residents compare them to an and throw feces at them. Even so, the company is likely to return soon from its in SF.
Despite its lukewarm reception, where Bird goes it usually succeeds. The company plans to have scooters in 50 markets by the end of 2018, and its latest round of funding . Since last September, when the scooters started popping up in in my hometown of Venice, CA (also where Bird’s headquarters are located), you haven't been able to walk a block without running into a Bird scooter.
Black and white Xiaomi M365 scooters make up the majority of Bird’s fleet and can reach a top speed of 15 mph. Each ride costs a $1 plus $0.15 for each minute. On a full charge, Bird says the scooters can take riders on an eco-friendly cruise for up to 15 mile, and there’s no need to dock them when you’re done. Just park them outside your destination, ready for the next Bird user.
Once the scooters are drained of juice, “” plug them in. Around 9 PM, all Bird scooters are pulled off the streets and are charged overnight or repaired. They are placed back into service early the next morning. (This brings us to one of the service's biggest limitations—no night riding.)
After riding a few myself and watching them slowly consume the streets of my hometown, I wondered, could I leave behind my four wheels for 48 hours and survive with just Bird scooters?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is, it's complicated.
Day 1, Morning: The Faux Commute
The biggest (and most dreaded) hurdle was surviving the morning commute. Although I now work at home, I decided to trek four miles away to Seniorhelpline' west coast office in Santa Monica. As a test, I loaded my backpack with a few supplies including water, a sweatshirt, shades, a helmet, and baby wipes for cleaning those germ-filled scooter grips.
Because these scooters are built for street riding, Bird “requires” a helmet when you ride and will send you one for free as long as you pay a very reasonable $1 to cover shipping. But 10 days after signing up and parting with a crisp $1, my helmet still hadn’t arrived. After reaching out to Bird, a rep told me they’re were on backorder, so I ended up using my own.
The app’s map shows a Bird with a full charge less than .1 mile from my house. After a quick jaunt, I unlock the scooter by waving my phone over the barcode on the handlebars. To get the scooter moving, you push off a couple of times with your foot and feed the throttle.
A top speed of 15 mph may not sound like much, but on this scooter it’s plenty. That’s because the tall, narrow handlebars are directly over the front wheel, a setup that makes the scooter feel a little wobbly.
I took the bike path along the coast, assuming no cars would mean less stress. But overnight winds kicked sand up from the beach onto the path. My scooter wiggled while pushing through. It felt treacherous, so I eased off the thumb throttle, especially on sharp corners. If I'd had to perform an evasive maneuver, I would've wound up on the ground.
Soon I turned away from the beach and headed inland. Santa Monica has some great bike lanes, but the hills pushed the Bird to the max. I weigh about 180 pounds and the Bird slowed to a crawl near the crest of the steepest hill.
I pull into the parking lot after 27 minutes, about 12 more minutes than the same commute would take in a car. One of the more startling discoveries is that the Bird used 40 percent of its battery charge on this admittedly hilly route and cost me $5.80. Other than being just a little chilly, the trip was enjoyable. I put down the kickstand, making sure the scooter was parked and ready for its next rider.
After greeting some former coworkers outside the office, I easily snatch up another Bird for the ride home. But after I push off, I notice this Bird is not the best mechanical specimen. The head tube and handlebars they have some play. The brakes were also a little grabby, too. Basically, it’s difficult to dial in the right amount of braking force to slow down smoothly. I had met my first bad Bird.
Part of Bird’s “Rider Acceptance of Agreement” tells users not to ride downhill. But for my commute, I had no choice. Add in this particular Bird’s sketchy brakes, and I’m traveling downhill at walking pace.
Instead of opting for a bike path, I took a more direct street route home. The well-marked bike lanes and light mid-morning traffic make the ride way quicker. It takes me just 19 minutes riding near full throttle most of the way and costs $5.50. But in heavy rush hour traffic, a Bird would actually be quicker than a car.
At the end of the ride, Bird asks for details on your ride’s performance, so I flag the brakes and handlebars for repairs.
Day 1, Evening: Finding The Best Birds
Later in the day, I hit the gym. This time the brakes make a loud clicking sound that only got worse when I pull the lever, and only part of this trip has bike lanes. I quickly discover that riding a Bird on a relatively high-speed road is a harrowing experience. The small tires and lack of suspension made broken pavement an uncomfortable experience. A bicycle, even one without suspension, would be more comfortable.
This 3-mile drive usually takes me 5 to 10 minutes depending on traffic. It took 17 minutes on a Bird and cost $3.55.
My gym’s location presented another challenge since it lies one the edge of Bird's service area. After my workout, the app located one scooter that was close, just outside a nearby pizza restaurant. But it’s a ghost—a scooter that’s already been rented but still shows up on the app.
I ask a woman inside the restaurant if she’s seen it. “You’re the third person that’s asked me today,” she says.
With no other option, I walk a half-mile to a shopping center with a full nest of Birds. But luckily after a long hike to an available Bird, I get one of the best scooters I borrowed during my entire flirtation with the ridesharing service. The steering feels tight, the brakes are perfect, and it’s a complete blast to ride home.
That evening, I have a work dinner with some colleagues. After learning about my Bird experiment, they mercifully pick a restaurant that’s just 2.2 miles from my house. The road is bumpy and traffic in one section is the heaviest it’s been all day. Even though traffic is slow, I feel a little out of place jockeying for position in a sea of impatient SUV drivers. I arrive, lock the scooter, and head inside. I need a beer.
Dinner runs late and by the time we walk out, my Bird is long gone—probably picked up by a charger for the night along with every other Bird in the area. So I cave and reluctantly grab a ride home with a friend, feeling a bit too good to be riding in a car.
Day 2: When Getting Groceries Is a Workout
Early the next morning, I took a quick 0.7-mile ride to Bird’s headquarters, a transformed industrial warehouse space. The inner sanctum has long tables with dozens of tech people clacking away. Many of them, I’m told, are assisting and monitoring the scooter rollout in new cities. The office was somewhat stark and, ironically, there aren’t many Birds around.
Later I was at a coffee shop working and my wife texted me a shopping list for the grocery store. It’s an easy haul, just some sliced turkey and bread for our kids, but with an already heavy bag, I felt less guilty about skipping the gym.
I find a Bird nearby and look it over, remembering the stark differences among by Bird scooters yesterday. I find one that looks okay but within the first few blocks I realize it’s busted. This one has almost no brakes and I nearly roll through a stop sign. I ditched it immediately, unlocked another one, and swore to never to ride a bad Bird again.
It's only the second day of my Bird lift, and I've already dreamed up a kind of test. If the scooter looks beat up with worn down hand grips, I’ll find another one. But if it looks good visually, I’ll check for what I can’t see. Before I unlock a scooter, I grab a fistful of brake lever and squeeze while rocking the scooter back and forth. This provides a reasonable indication of braking ability and checks to see if the head tube is loose.
If it passes these tests, I ride.
Despite its own grocery list of setbacks, the Bird’s greatest blessing is parking because it doesn't need its own spot at all. I feel grateful to skip this familiar headache. A half-hour later my pack is full and I look for another Bird for the ride home. I count about dozen nearby, so it’s not hard to find a good one in the bunch and park the Bird in front of my house with just 9 percent charge remaining.
Hours later I came outside and noticed my Bird is gone, replaced with another one with a full charge. My puzzled neighbor said he saw a person ride up on a scooter, take the one I left, and replace it an hour or so later with a new one.
In the evening, I took final spin in the Bird to a friend’s house, half a mile away. I usually walk or ride my bike because his place has notoriously difficult parking, but on a Bird, it was not only way quicker than walking, but I didn’t have to look for a place to lock my bike. And when we (inevitably) decided to leave his place and grab a drink, I didn’t have to retrieve my bike later. I was completely free from any vehicular responsibility.
The Ups and Downs of Bird
I enjoyed my 48 hours of Bird. The Scooters are fun, they’re everywhere in my area, and the service is flexible. But the e-scooter riding experience has some serious flaws. A broken Bird can be at best annoying, at worst dangerous. A few additional conveniences, such as a USB port for charging your phone, would be nice.
But Bird’s biggest drawback by far is cost. Riding a scooter any longer than a mile isn't just unpleasant—it's a money suck. I spent $41 on Bird rentals over the course of two days and covered just 23 miles. Doing that four-mile commute round trip costs nearly $12. Do it for 250 work days in a year and I'd be spending $3,000 annually on scooter commuting. That’s not cheap. I could almost pay for a full year’s lease on a 2018 Nissan Leaf EV instead.
Of course, that calculation doesn’t include insurance, parking, or the cost of fueling up a car. But even if I had just a “last mile” commute by Bird, it would cost about $4 a day or $1,000 per year—more than double the cost of just buying one of these scooters.
Scootering might not be the most cost-effective daily-use vehicle, but they are certainly a valuable part of the rideshare network. For occasional short trips, these Bird scooters can provide a convenient alternative to driving or biking—but not a complete replacement.
Good thing. I’m not ready to give up my keys quite yet.