The tech industry’s latest misdeed has cities squabbling over what to do with adults on electric scooters.
A trio of transportation startups—Bird, Spin, and LimeBike—recently deployed fleets of scooters in places like San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles, to the annoyance of residents who see them as a burden, not a benefit. The scooters work alongside their respective apps; users unlock them with a QR code, and pay $0.15 per minute to ride them. When users are done with the scooters, they can technically leave them wherever they want. Locals argue the scooters are cluttering sidewalks and endangering pedestrians. The companies claim to be a panacea for today’s modern commuting woes: traffic gridlock, carbon emissions, and public transportation deserts.
This month, the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office served a cease and desist order to all three companies for recklessly operating throughout the city. And while governments are now considering scooter-specific laws, the masses have taken matters into their own hands—by destroying, pooping on, vandalizing, and otherwise fucking them up.
“Overall, the Bird community is an agreeable flock,” Bird spokesperson Kenneth Baer told me when I asked about cases of abuse. “We have had few problems with theft or vandalism.”
Kenneth, I regret to inform you that people are shitting on the scooters...
...while others are just spelling it out.
Here are some LimeBike and Spin scooters shoved into trees:
And a Bird scooter scuttled in the San Francisco Bay:
This one’s got a sticker covering its QR scanner, rendering it unusable:
Brake problems, including cut brake lines, are one of the most common Bird malfunctions, according to Michael Ghadieh, who owns SF Wheels, a electronics repair shop in San Francisco’s Cole Valley that says it’s been contracted by Bird to fix its scooters.
“A lot of people hate these things” Ghadieh told me, adding that he believes the electric scooters are good for the city. “I don’t get it. They physically want to damage them.”
SF Wheels repairs roughly 100 to 150 Bird scooters per day, though Ghadieh didn’t say how many scooters come through due to vandalism. He did show me several scooters, however, that had snipped wires. When Bird first approached him, he says, the company estimated only ten to twenty scooters would need fixing each day. Ghadieh now has five employees working exclusively on Bird repairs, including three who were hired for the task.
Bird declined to say whether it’s doing anything to stop the vandalization. In addition to physical tampering, people are also gaming Bird’s charging system, which pays users several dollars—anywhere from $5 to $14 per unit—to charge batches of scooters and replace them around the city. Bird offers higher bounties on harder-to-get scooters as supply wanes, so people are allegedly hoarding them until the payouts go up.
“Think of it as a reverse surge pricing,” Harry Campbell, who recently tested and reviewed the program for his website The Rideshare Guy, told me. “Bounties go up throughout the night because they’re trying to incentivize people to find these last scooters.”
“In the early days of Uber and Lyft, there was a ton of similar fraud happening, [such as fake Uber drivers picking up passengers,] just because these companies were growing and scaling so quickly,” Campbell added. “Anytime there’s a financial transaction involved, people are always going to try to game the system.”
Bird was founded by Travis VanderZanden, Uber’s former VP of Global Driver Growth, and is active in seven cities—surpassing one million rides in seven months, according to the company, which has raised $118 million in funding so far. “When you ride a Bird, it reminds you of being free,” VanderZanden recently told the New York Times. “It gives you freedom. Like you have wings.”
Overall, the company has been fairly secretive about its platform and product. For example, a Quartz investigation found the scooters are made by Ninebot, a subsidiary of Chinese electronics company Xiaomi, which Bird would not confirm, even when asked about the safety standards it claims to enforce. I also asked Bird how it disperses its scooters each day, since it claims to be an affordable transportation solution for “communities across the world,” yet seems to be serving primarily affluent neighborhoods.
“Each morning, Chargers place Birds on private property, which we call Nests, in neighborhoods we’ve selected based on several factors including rider demand,” the company told me.
The Bay Area has frequently been a testbed for ambitious startups. Uber, for instance, knowingly piloted its autonomous cars in San Francisco without a permit before being booted by the city. And after years of growing tension between locals and these companies, San Francisco is actively fighting back against the latest tech trend.
Know something about scooter startups or the people protesting them? Tip Sarah Emerson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @SarahNEmerson.
Correction: This story originally misidentified an image as showing a cut brake line and has been corrected.