Flipping the Bird: The Ethics of a Disruptive New Business
It is Sept. 18, give or take 10 days after Bird Rides Inc. launched its electric scooter-sharing app on Michigan State University’s campus and the East Lansing neighborhoods that saddle it. A well-suited Bird representative has just finished rattling off some impressive numbers (600 rides a day) and noble company values and is about to start looking decreasingly credible to the committee evaluating his employer.
“If Bird is all about education, why was no one notified prior to their citywide launch?”
“Who gets sued if a Bird rider crashes into another pedestrian?”
Those and other important questions remain effectively unanswered throughout the remainder of this East Lansing City Council meeting. Across the country, city employees find themselves asking the same questions and facing a new reality: A young industry has emerged, and it has a pension for disruption.
In 2017 the advent of ride-sharing and the increasing optimization of personal transportation devices collided to birth Bird Rides. Taking cue from LimeBike, Bird saw potential in a last-mile vehicle-sharing app but envisioned a more 21st century vehicle. After a quick round of funding, Bird unveiled its service, a mobile app that granted users access to a fleet of dockless electric scooters. The app locates available scooters in the surrounding area and unlocks the user’s chosen ride with a simple QR scan. The scooters are fast, eco-friendly and cheap, but parking is where some problems begin to rear up.
To date Bird has been largely unaccountable for its products, which span entire cities. While a rider accountability system (riders send pictures of their parked scooters post-ride) was mentioned by the representative at the East Lansing City Council meeting, the system’s legitimacy was never concretely established. Birds still consistently turn up in the middle of sidewalks, blocking ramps or hanging out of trash cans. In addition to Bird failing to ensure its product is compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act rules, Bird seems entirely unsure of what should happen if its product is involved in an accident. During an interview, an unnamed Bird spokesperson responded to that scenario by recommending the incident be reported to Bird’s support team, but made no mention of the legal ramifications of a scooter accident. Bird is a very young startup and blunders are sure to occur, but a legal team should be front and center in a public transportation launch as ambitious as the company’s.
Scrolling through Bird’s company website, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of the Manifest Destiny credo the company was presumably built on. The homepage is dominated by a video depicting a mild-mannered highway line-painter standing up to the rotten “car crowd” by laying claim to three-quarters of a highway in the name of kind Bird riders. While this may seem strange to many, the video’s message falls in line with the typical Bird debut in a new area. As a practice, Bird likes to drop into communities entirely unannounced. The East Lansing Police Department, City Council and anybody who especially needed notification of such a drastic change to public space report that Bird’s launch came as quite a surprise.
Remember LimeBike? Since 2017 the company dropped the “Bike” and picked up electric scooters to give Bird a run for its money. While far from perfect themselves (Lime scooters get impounded wholesale just the same as Birds), Lime serves as a good contrast to Bird in its young industry. Scott Mullen, Lime’s director of expansion in the Northeast, also spoke at the September City Council meeting; however, where the Bird rep blundered, Scott excelled. Right out the gate, Scott addressed Lime’s accountability with mention of its geo-fencing tech, being able to mark areas as danger zones for riders and notify them of possible fines for parking in a restricted area. Additionally, in an interview with Lime spokesperson Olivia Hwang, she provided information regarding Lime’s insurance coverage in response to the same accident scenario presented to Bird. The East Lansing Police Department reported that Lime notified the department prior to its launch on the streets of East Lansing. Despite Lime and Bird sharing a birth year (2017), watching the two operate in the same arena tends to paint Lime as an old vet and Bird as more than a bit wet behind the ears.