An electric scooter sharing service's rides were spotted in downtown Baton Rouge Thursday, with city-parish officials saying that fast-growing startup company Bird isn't authorized to operate in the city and speculating that it may be on the verge of launching its service.
Fred Raiford, city-parish director of transportation and drainage, said Bird, which is known for entering markets unannounced, needs to have a franchise agreement in order to allow people to rent the scooters off downtown sidewalks. Raiford said he’s also concerned about safety issues associated with leaving electric scooters on the sidewalk.
“We don’t want to impose regulations to make business restrictive but we’ve got to look after the overall safety of people,” he said. “We have a lot of concerns that other cities have.”
Rowdy Gaudet, assistant chief administrative officer for the city-parish, said so far three Birds have been seen downtown on Fourth Street. Gaudet speculated the service may not have fully launched in the city because Baton Rouge isn't showing up as an available city on the Bird app. As of late Thursday afternoon, the scooters had been removed, which is not unusual since they are retrieved daily for recharging overnight.
A statement from Bird said the company "has not yet launched service in Baton Rouge" but hopes to be in the city in the near future. "We believe the city would be a great place to provide our accessible, affordable, environmentally friendly transportation option," the company said.
In just over a year, Bird has expanded to more than 120 cities across the world.
Bird has been in the Lafayette market for about two weeks, while New Orleans recently pulled out of a pilot program to launch scooter rentals in the Crescent City.
Customers use a Bird app to rent its Chinese-made scooters, which look like Razor scooters, for a fee of $1 plus a per-minute charge that ranges between 15 and 20 cents. Once a rider finishes traveling on a Bird scooter, he or she leaves it behind for someone else. In the evening, a crew picks up the scooters, charges them overnight, then redistributes them out on the sidewalk the next morning. Bird has grown to be valued at $2 billion, according to Inc. magazine, through guerrilla tactics, such as dropping off scooters in cities unannounced. The business has taken in $415 million in venture capital funding, which gives it the resources to fly into cities.
Bird officials defended their tactics in an Inc. article, saying that the scooters reduce cars from the road, cut back on traffic congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Ironically, Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said earlier this week that city officials need to be ready for scooter services coming to town because in some cities “they just appear overnight.”
After several months of deliberation, City Hall is pulling out of a “pilot” plan to allow electric scooter rentals on the streets of New Orleans.
Rhorer said at the DDD commission meeting on Tuesday that he had asked parish officials if they could regulate scooter services. He brought up the issue after he recently visited San Antonio and saw scooters around the city. “In a number of cities scooters come in haphazard and they just take over areas,” he said. It’s unclear if riders should drive the scooters on streets or sidewalks.
The goal is to make sure that the scooters are corralled in a safe area and not scattered across downtown, especially in areas where the sidewalks are in poor condition.
According to Rhorer, Lea Anne Batson, the parish attorney, told him that the law would not allow for the scooters on the sidewalks of Baton Rouge.
Lindsey West, executive director of Baton Rouge BikeShare, which is setting up a program scheduled to launch in March that will allow people to rent bicycles through an app, said she’s in favor of micro-mobility programs. But she said Bird is going about things the wrong way.
“I’m pro all of this, but not doing it illegally,” she said.
West noted that the city-parish spent several years working on a bike-share program and developing ordinances. In September, the city-parish selected South Carolina-based Gotcha as the private vendor to supply the bikes as the result of a competitive bid process.
Bird is hoping that cities react in a positive way toward the electric scooters and allow them to continue operating. “But that’s not recommended as a best practice,” she said.
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