If you have spent any time around downtown Kansas City in the past month, you have likely noticed the impressive volume of electric scooters in seemingly every direction. Known as “Birds”, these scooters belong to a California-based company by the same name. Bird has expanded eastward in recent years, bringing controversy with it. The company dropped off several hundred scooters on streets around downtown in July, effectively launching its unconventional service in Kansas City.
Bird offers a kind of ride-sharing service, allowing users to find, ride, and subsequently park its scooters via a mobile app. The scooters cost $1 to unlock and $0.15 per minute to ride. Afterward, the rider is free to park the scooter anywhere for another to ride. Bird users are known as “Chargers” keep the scooters charged, picking them up nightly for a reward of about $5 each. Chargers bring them home to charge before dropping them off at “nests” in the early morning hours. After a brief signup process, riders can use the app’s map to find Birds parked nearby and view their remaining charge. Once the rider reaches a Bird, they scan the Bird’s QR code. Then the app requests the rider to scan their driver's license and accept the terms and conditions. Finally, after a simple tutorial screen, the rider is free to go.
Surprisingly, Bird’s business model appears to work well and Kansas Citians love riding them. However, Bird’s success has also come with controversy. Bird has adopted Uber’s approach to expansion, which consists of launching the service in a new city before obtaining permission from lawmakers and dealing with any obstacles later. Cities such as Denver, San Francisco, and Charleston have banned Bird entirely, and others are currently deciding how to handle issues posed by the scooters. Principal concerns include the safety of Bird riders, as well as the pedestrians which they must integrate within the dense urban centers where most Birds are ridden. Bird requests that riders wear a helmet and avoid riding on sidewalks, so as not to endanger pedestrians. However, these rules often go unenforced by cities, Kansas City included.
Unfortunately, I have seen these dangers firsthand. In July, my friend riding a Bird scooter collided with a pickup truck backing out of a parking space on Walnut Street in Kansas City’s River Market. Thankfully, he was wearing a helmet and the collision resulted in only minor scrapes and bruises. Scenes like this make it easy to imagine how a rider could be seriously injured or killed while riding one of the scooters, yet many ride them as if they are undertaking no risk whatsoever. It remains to be seen whether an incident resulting in injury or death will result in a lawsuit or changes to city policy, and such an incident may be inevitable.
Despite its issues, I believe Bird’s “scooter sharing” service represents a positive aspect of Kansas City’s successful downtown revitalization. Walk almost anywhere in downtown on a weekend and you will see dozens enjoying the day on Bird scooters. In addition, Birds are a legitimate form of alternative transportation that some will find viable to use for their commutes to work. Like the streetcar, Birds show how alternative forms of transportation are most successful when they have a “cool” factor which draws people to them. In conclusion, I believe Bird scooters to be a positive force for economic growth in Kansas City, as well as a symbol of its thriving downtown. However, their use must be regulated, with both Bird riders and the city taking safety more seriously.