The Latest Buzz: Birds in Berkeley

This article was originally published in our Fall 2018 print issue.

From public bikes to electric scooters, startups and developing companies are constantly looking for the next hot trend to catch the public eye. Companies such as Bird and Lime have developed electric scooters coordinated by an app on a smartphone that provide a cheap, quick, and easy way to get from point A to point B.

Birds have made their way to nearly every major city and college in California thus far. After expanding to 75 cities across the U.S., the electric scooters are found bustling down international streets in Paris or Tel Aviv. They have reached over 20 colleges, including SDSU, UCLA, Point Loma Nazarene, and more. Berkeley is now sandwiched between cities where Bird scooters are commonplace, such as Piedmont, Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco, and San Jose, so it is only natural that some Birds have flooded the streets of Berkeley.

These electric scooters have gained traction for solving the “last mile” problem in transportation; it gets commuters those last couple blocks — from the bus, BART, or Caltrain station — to their desired destination. This issue is especially prevalent with students on college campuses, as scooters can help carry them across campus where Uber would not be able to.

According to Bird, 40% of Uber trips are under 2 miles, so this cheap and convenient alternative reduces the traffic and expenses of using Uber for as little as $0.15 per minute. Beyond solving this transportation crisis, electric scooters are environmentally efficient.

“Automobile use is the No. 1 contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Bike [and scooter] sharing directly addresses this dire situation by offering residents another mode of transportation that is not an automobile,” said City of Berkeley Communications Director Matthai Chakko. “So, by getting more people to bike [and scooter], modes can begin to shift from auto to more sustainable modes, bettering air quality, curbing climate change, raising the public health by folks being active and a host of other goods.”

Studies published in The Lancet argue that “outdoor air pollution contributed more than 3% of the annual disability-adjusted life years lost in the 2010 Global Burden of Disease comparative risk assessment.” There is an abundance of data that holds outdoor air pollution, especially that caused by traffic-related air pollution, responsible for not only for aggravating pre-existing asthma, but also causing new-onset asthma as well.

Taking advantage of alternatives other than automobiles is an active choice consumers can make to decrease the traffic-related air pollution footprint of their community. As emphasized by CEO and founder of Bird, Travis VanderZanden, “Our mission is really to help reduce car trips, traffic and carbon emissions. We think Bird is having a very positive impact in the cities we’re operating in.”

Earlier this year, Bird put out a “Save Our Sidewalks Pledge” to ensure that these scooters are used in a way that prevents safety hazards to the community. The company has developed daily pickup programs, placed limits on the growth of scooters, and pledged to donate $1 a day to city governments in an effort to build and maintain safe city shared infrastructure.

So what’s the harm in getting a cheap ride to school and having a little fun while you’re at it? The biggest dangers are that the scooters can reach speeds of up to 15 mph, and riders often don’t wear helmets. In the safety section of the Bird app, however, free helmets are offered to all riders who pay for shipping.

Others complain of the nuisance that these scooters cause when they are left in sidewalks and other places inconvenient for pedestrians, a problem Bird’s new Save Our Sidewalks pledge aims to address. In fact, in order to ride, you must not only have a valid driver’s license but also be over 18 years of age so that you fully understand the rules of the road.

Although some perceive scooters as a threat to community safety, Chakko notes that it’s premature to consider scooters to be a public health hazard.

“At the end of the day, the scooter-related injury reports pale in comparison to automobile collision injuries,” said Chakko. “So while we still address negligent scooter behavior and seek ways to make all people using the public right-of-way safer, we should not be more discerning of scooters over other statistically more threatening modes of transportation.”

The City of Berkeley recognizes that these scooters have made their way across city borders, whether they are permitted or not. Scooter companies are required to make a Franchise Agreement with the city to technically be permitted, but the City of Berkeley is already in the process of developing a pilot program with scooter share companies to test their functionality within the city.

And although UC Berkeley’s campus has Walk Zones around Sproul, Dwinelle, and Sather Gate, as well as speed restrictions, the City of Berkeley remarked that the popularity of scooters as a method of transportation will most likely soar on campus once measures are taken to regulate these scooters. City employees and UC Berkeley staff are looking at ways to protect public safety and prevent a public health hazard.