‘Bird’ scooters make bid to ‘save our sidewalks,’ but competitors are skeptical

SAN DIEGO — As controversy continues around dockless bikes and other vehicles cluttering sidewalks in San Diego, the scooter operator Bird is proposing a solution that one competitor says is motivated by simple self-interest.

Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden wrote an open letter to his counterparts at four bike-sharing companies urging them to join him to “Save Our Sidewalks” by signing a three-pronged pledge to help American cities avoid the plight of “out-of-control” bike-sharing deployment in China.

Huge piles of abandoned and broken bikes overrun the sidewalks in that country, VanderZanden said.

The plan unveiled Tuesday calls for repositioning bikes and scooters based on rider demand, limiting the number deployed to city streets and donating $1 per vehicle per day to cities in which the companies operate.

Bird’s proposal came the same day that news broke that the Little Italy Association began using its maintenance crews to remove shared bikes and scooters from that neighborhood’s center and line them up on a sidewalk adjacent to Interstate 5.

Ofo, one of the main dockless bike-sharing companies in San Diego, derided Bird’s proposal as motivated by self-interest. Ofo spokesman Taylor Bennett said the company favors an approach of working with stakeholders and governments to come to the best solution to concerns presented by the burgeoning industry, while a Bird representative countered that the pledge is an example of that company’s own aim at collaboration.

Bennett said Ofo is “actively” working with the Little Italy group to address its concerns, while claiming that Bird “has shown a clear trend in operating first without prior approval, and just like its approach to entering cities, it once again has resorted to bullying tactics to push its own agenda and forgo any sort of community collaboration.”

“We encourage Bird to join us in working together with local governments before launch and support cities’ desire to have a framework for safety in place before new products are released to the public,” Bennett said.

The city of Santa Monica in December filed a criminal complaint against Bird, accusing it of operating without a license and refusing to comply with city citations, including orders to remove scooters from sidewalks.

Bird pleaded no contest and agreed to pay more than $300,000 in fines and secure a proper business license. The company’s agreement with that city also required it to run a public safety campaign on public buses, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The main bike- or scooter-sharing companies operating in the San Diego — LimeBike, Ofo, Mobike and Bird — all hold the required business tax certificate, according to the mayor’s office.

A Bird representative said the company “wants to work with cities on our shared goal of reducing traffic and carbon emissions. That is why we continually engage with the cities, campuses and communities in which we operate, and make sure that we are following all the rules of the road — just like any other business.”

A spokesman for the San Diego mayor’s office said the city has sent letters to each operator to ensure they’re aware of the state and city laws that pertain to their businesses, including laws governing bikes, scooters, property and business activity in the public right-of-way and activity in public parks and beaches.

“We appreciate the proactive approach the dockless bike-sharing companies are taking to address concerns raised by residents and businesses,” said Greg Block, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Dockless bikes proliferated in San Diego after the city attorney in February cleared the companies to operate in the city.

The City Council has not considered any new rules regulating the businesses.

Maya Rosas, policy director at transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, said proactive business practices, regulation and education are all important parts of ushering in the culture shift around using dockless bikes as transportation.

“It’s great that Bird is taking a proactive approach toward making sure that these dockless bikes and scooters are a success wherever they go,” she said. “It’s also important for the city to create smart regulations that focus on encouraging the use of these active modes of transportation.”

In his Tuesday letter, Bird’s CEO said the company would pick up all of its scooters from city streets every night to inspect and repair vehicles as necessary and reposition the scooters “to where the vehicles are wanted the next day, so they are not cluttering our neighborhoods.”

The company also pledged that it will not increase the number of vehicles in any city unless they are being used on average at least three times per day and will remove any underutilized scooters.

Additionally, VanderZanden offered to provide city governments $1 per scooter per day “so they can use this money to build more bike lanes, promote safe riding, and maintain our shared infrastructure.”

A spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office said that proposed arrangement appears to be a donation to the city, which must be made in accordance with the City Council’s donation policy and reviewed by the city’s lawyers.

The policy stipulates that donations must be used for city business, though donations can be restricted for certain purposes by the donor.

VanderZanden urged his counterparts at LimeBike, Ofo, Mobike and Jump to sign onto the pledge, but so far none have done so, according to Bird.

Asked about Bird’s pledge, a Mobike spokeswoman pointed to the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, which the company recently signed. She said the agreement states the company will prioritize people over vehicles, lower emissions and promote equity, among other goals, and is an example of how Mobike is dedicated to working with cities to improve transportation.