Bird Flies Sustainably with Sturdy Scooters

An Interview with Melinda Hanson, Bird’s Head of Sustainability

By Steve Schaefer

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Bird, the two-year-old, Santa-Monica-based scooter sharing company, has been growing and developing its trademark electric scooters since it was founded in September 2017. One question about scooters, though, is how sustainable they are. I spoke with Bird’s Head of Sustainability, Melinda Hanson, at VERGE 19 in Oakland to find out.

Hanson has two facets to her role: One is promoting the carbon mitigation potential of electric vehicles while helping cities meet their clean energy transportation goals. The other is working to make sure Bird itself is a more sustainable company.

Hanson is focused on developing climate policy that gets people into EVs, including the small scooters that are Bird’s mainstay. She’s concerned emissions are still going up despite the rise of EVs and scooters.

As anyone who lives in a city can attest, the scooter sharing business is booming.

“The main growth in EVs in 2018 was in scooters,” said Hanson.

Hanson told me that Bird’s goal is to get people out of their cars for short trips, especially in crowded cities.

“The data shows that many car trips are less than three miles,” said Hanson. “They should be riding scooters.”

I asked if people were really replacing car trips with scooters and Hanson said that one third to one half of e-scooter trips were replacing personal car trips—and much of the rest was in place of using ridesharing services, such as Uber and Lyft—which are not environmentally positive if they’re internal combustion engines—and contribute to traffic congestion.

Bird takes its scooters seriously. They have developed and refined them over the last two years to be more robust, so they last longer.

“Our first scooters were consumer models, not rugged enough for many trips a day by multiple people,” said Hanson. Bird has built its own custom models now, which they test for ruggedness. They have learned a lot from the last two years.

“We used to have screws come loose, and shock absorbers wore out,” Hanson said. “We have increased frame density and put on better kickstands,” she said.

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The Bird 2 model—the newest one—is much improved. The company wants riding a Bird to be a great experience, so customers will come back and ride them regularly.

Bird has doubled the battery capacity of the latest scooters. This means that they can be used by more customers before needing to come in to be recharged. To facilitate local charging, Bird has a distributed charging program where gig workers can pick up the scooters and charge them at home and put them back on the street. These folks are called “chargers.”

“We want to reduce friction,” Hanson said. That means making not only the riding experience fun and easy but also signup and payment.

Bird has started collaborating with Scoot to bring out other types of two-wheel transportation, such as mopeds.

“We want to provide a bunch of vehicles for different trip modes,” said Hanson. But the starter vehicle is still likely to be the little scooter, which is easy to ride and easy to park.

Safety is a concern, and Bird has worked with cities to try to create bike lanes. They have offered to send riders free helmets (the customer pays only for shipping).

Hanson is looking for a systems impact. She thinks there’s room to start converting parking spaces to scooter parking at some point, when there are enough of them out there.

“When scooters become a major aspect of urban mobility the streets will start changing the way they look,” said Hanson.

Why will Bird succeed where others falter? Hanson thinks their emphasis on a great customer experience will lead to winning in the marketplace. And, their major investments in R&D to create better quality scooters will help too.

Summing up, Bird’s goal is to improve the overall efficiency of vehicles, using clean energy; they want to get people out of their cars for all those short trips. And they want to do it sustainably.

Skip Scooters – a First Ride

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I just tried my first electric scooter! It’s easy, fun, and a little scary, too.

It began with seeing little blue Skip scooters tied to posts and trees around downtown San Francisco. I’ve just started a new job working in the city again after a few decades, and things have changed. My company builds and sells software for carsharing and ridesharing (and in the future,  hopefully scooters, too), so I was eager to sample one of the new “micro-mobility” options.

Skip scooters are available where you find them, but to ride one, you first need to download the app. That takes about a minute, from searching for it on your Apple or Android phone and waiting for it to download. When you open the app, it explains how to use the app and also how to ride the scooter safely. You can sign up for an account by adding in your personal information, such as driver’s license and credit card.

I decided that this particular Friday afternoon was a great time to try a scooter. Using the app, I located a couple of them near my office and set out to find them.

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I followed the map and looked–but no scooter! Then I looked across the street. I must have missed something, because there it was. The app made it look like it was on my side of the street.

I went up and tried to scan the QR code. The app then asked me for my driver’s license (front and back). Leaving the scooter tethered, I went to find a slightly more private spot to photograph my license on the street. The app warned me of “glare,” but I got two decent images. Then, I had to enter my credit card information.

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After this, when I put my phone up by the QR code, it gave me a four-digit combination to enter to unlock the scooter’s combination cable lock. Then, all I did was recoil the cable onto the scooter frame and pulled the bike over onto a piece of open sidewalk.

One push, and I was off. The accelerator is a thumb paddle on the right side of the handlebars. On the left is a matching one that slows the scooter down. There’s a manual foot brake that rubs against the wheel, but I think it’s more like an “emergency brake,” since the thumb brake worked fine during my .07-mile ride.

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After zipping along the sidewalk (proscribed by Skip and the City of S.F.), I got onto the actual street, after looking both ways carefully. I then spent the rest of my ride in back alleys, where I had lots of space and few cars to deal with.

The little Skip takes off strongly with its electric motor–just like an electric car, but without the mass. Of course, the motor and battery are tiny, so it all balances out. When you rent a scooter, the app tells you the percentage of charge left and approximate range you can expect. I assume going up hills would use up charge more quickly. I don’t think there’s a regen feature to add charge when you brake or go downhill, as in a car.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet–a bad idea–but I was just testing it, right? Most of the riders I’ve seen so far don’t wear them, possibly because they just hopped on it for a quick trip. However, if you take at least one ride, Skip will send you a helmet for free (you pay $10 shipping). When I got back to my office, I ordered mine using the app, I’ll wait for my helmet to arrive before taking another spin, just to be safe. However, even with a helmet, cruising up to 18 miles an hour down a street full of cars, potholes, pedestrians, and who knows what else seems like a risky proposition with no protection whatsoever.

When I was done with my test ride, I parked the scooter and attached it to a handy street sign pole. As a first timer, I neglected to wrap the lock cable around the pole a bunch of times like I should have, and I somehow missed the step in the app of taking and sending a “parking photo,” but the loan completed fine and my bank account was lighter by $2.75. I had a brisk sense of adventure and a little chill from moving at that speed with just a sweatshirt on.

Micro-mobility, as represented by scooters and electrically assisted bikes, is with us now. It makes a lot of sense in dense urban areas, where driving a car is a pain and environmentally irresponsible. It’s perfect “last mile” transportation from public transit to an office front door. I look forward to the day when downtowns are designed for scooters, with wide, car-free bike lanes separated from the cars and buses.