Bird, the California-based e-scooter rental company valued at $2 billion, is planning to launch in New York City, a traffic-choked metropolis whose aging subway system is driving residents bonkers. And, maybe, driving them to e-scooters.
"Our vision for New York is a fully integrated transportation solution for the twenty-first century eventually," says Matthew Kopko, the director of public policy at Bird.
There is one initial problem: Electric scooters are currently illegal in New York. While Bird got its start a year ago by nesting in cities like Santa Monica and San Francisco without first asking for permission, the company is learning to play politics better. So, before launching, Kopko says the company has been meeting with dozens of New York City Council members in an effort to change the laws. Currently, council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Rafael Espinal Jr. are drafting legislation to make New York e-scooter-friendly. Spokespeople for the councilmen say they hope to submit a draft, which will be subjected to a public hearing and then a vote, soon.
Kopko, who with 12 other employees is operating out of Bird's recently opened office in a WeWork space in the Financial District, says the company is working with legislators on a bill that would only allow small, lightweight, electric-powered scooters that have a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour to be street legal. "The goal is a super-surgical amendment [to the broad ban on electric-scooters] that can be done with about six words to allow devices that go under a certain speed," says Kopko.
The company is also working with Bradley Tusk, founder of Tusk Strategies. Tusk is known for his work helping Uber, and other companies like FanDuel and Eaze, successfully navigate regulatory hurdles.
On Monday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, City Councilman Antonio Reynoso and Bird executives held a press conference to explain how e-scooter rental companies could help offer alternative transportation options when the L train, the neighborhood's main subway line, shuts down for a planned 15-month overhaul, beginning in April 2019.
"The L train shutdown is looming. It is real, it is going to happen, it's going be disruptive, it'll be a disaster," says Reynoso. "We need to be smart and allow for more options to exist to give people more alternatives. The city needs to be as open-minded as possible."
Reynoso says if e-scooters are legalized, he believes the devices could help the hundreds of thousands of people who live along the L train corridor get to work, or to scoot to other trains and ferries. Reynoso also thinks e-scooters represent technological progress that could usher in a new era of cutting-edge alternative modes of transportation as the city's 114-year-old subway system is dealing with decaying infrastructure and daily service delays.
"We need to be open to innovation. We do not want to be the last city in the country to allow e-scooters," says Reynoso.
If e-scooters are legalized, the companies would still have to go through a competitive bidding process to get licensed by New York's Department of Transportation.
The DOT, which regulates all things transit in the five boroughs, allowed Lime and Pacer to launch limited bike-share programs in Staten Island, the Bronx and the Rockaway Peninsula this summer. A spokeswoman says that even though e-scooters are currently illegal under state law, the agency is "not outright opposed" to the devices being legal and regulated.
"This is an exciting and challenging time in urban transportation, with many innovative technologies hitting our streets, but that also brings regulatory and safety concerns we must address," the DOT spokeswoman says.
Safety is a big concern for many cities that are now home to e-scooter rental programs. According to the Washington Post, emergency rooms in 12 cities have seen a spike in e-scooter injuries. There have been two rental e-scooter fatalities--a rider in Dallas, and another in Washington, D.C. During the press conference, Reynoso and David Strickland, a lawyer hired to run Bird's global advisory board, said safety risks need to be taken in context. "Over 200 pedestrians in New York have died because of vehicles, and no one is advocating to rid the city streets of cars," says Reynoso.
Earlier this year in San Francisco, e-scooters became a symbol of tech elitism, but Strickland says that in New York e-scooters would become a mode of transportation for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds."We are not looking to make this a millennial entitlement, Manhattan thing," says Strickland. "We are making this a multi-borough, multi-community opportunity for better transportation."