Bird Invasion: Atlanta’s electric scooters are fun, dangerous, exciting, annoying, and unstoppable

Revolutionary or nuisance? The polarizing transportation trend has the city talking.

Bird electric scooters

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Mark makes money while he sleeps. On the porch of his Atlanta apartment, 10 black Bird scooters are plugged into a wall outlet, sucking up power. A few buildings over, two of his friends each have 15 scooters in their apartments doing the same thing. At one time, the crew could have 45 Birds in their possession.

Every evening, the Bird app on his smartphone shows him the locations of hundreds of bare-bones, stand-up electric scooters that people rent and ride for short trips around the city. Mark, who asked his full name not be used, joins the army of gig workers who sign up through Bird to become “chargers,” earning $5 to $20 per scooter by prowling the city, picking up ones running low on batteries, charging them at home, and then “releasing” them in the morning at select “nests.” Charging the scooters only adds a few bucks to their power bills; over two days in July, the crew made nearly $300.

“It’s passive income,” Mark says while his friends sit hunched over a laptop playing a computer game.

In early May, without much of a heads up to City Hall, the Santa Monica–based company founded by a former Lyft and Uber executive dropped off 200 of its scooters in Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, downtown, and West End. Within 70 days, Bird staff added 400 scooters here, on which more than 43,000 people now have taken more than 110,000 trips, making Atlanta one of its most popular cities. Bird’s brazen business tactic, pulled from the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” playbook perfected by Uber and Airbnb, has sparked a people-moving revolution, coaxing other so-called “shareable dockless mobility vehicles,” such as Lime (scooters) and Muving (mopeds), to enter the market.

With just a smartphone, Atlantans can check out the vehicles for as little as $1—and pay 15 cents for each additional minute—to zip down the street at up to 15 miles an hour. When riders reach their destinations, they park the scooter, bike, or moped for the next person. The result is a Wild West Scooterville: Sidewalks and streets have turned into a proving ground to determine whether we prefer scooting or pedaling our way out of congestion, and which company crashes or soars.

Done well, says city planning commissioner Tim Keane, the scooters, bikes, and even mopeds could do what the Segway couldn’t: help residents, workers, and visitors travel a distance that’s too far to walk and too short to drive, the so-called “last mile” that’s stymied transportation planners for decades. Joseph F. Hacker, an associate professor of planning and economic development at Georgia State University, was skeptical of the technology at first, but now he views it as “microtransit,” a finer-grained solution than a bus or a bicycle and a potentially beneficial piece of Atlanta’s overall transportation network. “It gives people ultimate flexibility within a six-block radius,” he says. “My office is near Woodruff Park. I could hop on a Bird and be up in Peachtree Center in no time.”

And, as Atlanta officials project the city’s population will more than double during the next 30 to 40 years, topping 1.2 million, people need options for getting around. Keane hopes that more people using scooters, bikes, and any mode other than cars will encourage them to care more about Atlanta’s streets and sidewalks, familiarize motorists with sharing the road, and spur the city to design safer streets for all users. “We should embrace this and determine how best to regulate it. It could be a very good thing for the city—ours especially.”

Chargers aren’t the only ones turning this service into a profitable side hustle, like a Pokemon Go game that they get paid for playing. The company has also built a crew of local “mechanics” who are sent a free starter kit of tools, tire tubes, and parts to replace stickers, fix brakes, and make other minor repairs for a flat fee of $15 a scooter. “It’s great pay,” says Bennie Hurt IV, a 25-year-old entertainment-business student who fixes 10 to 20 Birds a day out of Peaceful Clouds, a smoke shop on Edgewood Avenue. “You work on your own schedule. Just follow the rules, and do diligent work.”

But one person’s convenience can be another person’s burden. Shortly after Lime appeared in Atlanta, James Curtis, a 46-year-old who has used a wheelchair for more than 20 years, was unable to bypass a scooter left on the sidewalk across the street from the Shepherd Center, where he volunteers. “It made me feel like a second-class citizen,” he says. Twitter and Reddit users have shared pictures and stories of joyriders weaving along sidewalks and past pedestrians in Midtown and along the Atlanta BeltLine—both areas where riding electric scooters is prohibited—and going against traffic. (The coup de grace: a photo one user took of a person cruising on a scooter on the Downtown Connector.)

Bird suggests users wear a helmet, but it’s safe to say no one does. The companies also require users to be over the age of 18, but younger teen riders aren’t deterred. “I see it all the time,” says Jennifer Ide, a councilwoman who represents Virginia-Highland. And people are already gaming a system built on sharing: Many times, scooters listed as available for rent are actually sitting in an apartment, being hoarded for personal use or to run down a battery to earn a higher charging payout.

Unlike San Francisco and Nashville, which have impounded the scooters until the companies obtain proper permits, Atlanta officials have looked the other way. Atlanta Police have refrained from ticketing people riding on sidewalks until the city council crafts regulations. That lengthy process, which is currently underway, could cap the number of vehicles a company can release (rental bikes in China were found discarded in fields after companies flooded the market there) and control their placement (the scooters tend to cluster in more affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods).

Bird and Lime, as well as transportation advocates, are encouraging the city not to clamp down too hard. “Atlanta as a growing metropolis really needs to embrace regulatory innovation because that’s where people are going to say, ‘that’s a cool city,’” says Hacker. “Many places would benefit from being a little Wild West.”

Field guide
Here are some of the other rental bikes and scooters you might see in Atlanta.

Lime

Illustration by Nicolette Kubea

Lime
The Pepsi to Bird’s Coca-Cola counts Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and Uber as investors and appeared in June.

Spin

Illustration by Nicolette Kubea

Spin
CEO Euwyn Poon, the cofounder and president of Spin (yet another e-scooter company) says he’s considering bringing a fleet of 5,000 vehicles to Atlanta.

OFO

Illustration by Nicolette Kubea

Ofo
The bike rental company from China has a fleet of 10 million bikes in 20 countries but lasted only one month in Atlanta before pulling its yellow two-wheelers.

Muving

Illustration by Nicolette Kubea

Muving
The European company scattered its yellow-and-black mopeds—each outfitted with two helmets—across intown.

Relay

Illustration by Nicolette Kubea

Relay
The city-sanctioned bikeshare program, which launched in 2016, has more than 70 docks throughout town, with a focus on equity in neighborhoods like West End and Vine City.

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

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