Electric scooter startup Bird drops a flock in Richmond; city promptly nets it

A quartet of Bird scooters along Broad Street.

After attempting an unannounced launch in downtown Richmond, a West Coast scooter startup had its wings clipped by the city.

Bird, a Santa Monica, California-based company that operates a fleet of electric dockless scooters in cities nationwide, on Thursday dropped a batch of its vehicles in the city in a blitz that quickly resulted in riders zipping around town.

But operations didn’t last long, as by Thursday afternoon the city announced Bird was not allowed to run in Richmond and its scooters were being impounded.

Tom Byrnes, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, confirmed that the city was collecting and impounding the scooters, saying that Bird did not have the permissions needed to drop their fleet in the city.

“They deployed them without engaging the city. We had no contact with them,” Byrnes said.

A screenshot of Bird’s iPhone app and the location of its scooters in Richmond on Thursday.

Here’s how Bird works: Users can locate and unlock a scooter for $1 through the company’s mobile app, then ride it for about 20 cents per minute. The scooters are dockless, meaning they can be left anywhere after use.

In addition to riders using them, the scooters were seen parking on sidewalks across the city on Thursday. Byrnes said Bird was in violation of the Department of Public Works’ encroachment policies relating to placing things in the public right-of-way, as well as safety and liability policies.

“They’ve been informed that the city is removing (the scooters). They’ll have opportunity to pick them up tomorrow at a location they were given,” Byrnes said.

It’s unclear exactly how many Bird scooters were sent to Richmond, but its app showed dozens pinging between downtown and VCU early on Thursday.

Bird’s arrival came weeks after one of its main competitors, Lime, began exploring Richmond as a potential market.

Bird spokeswoman Mackenzie Long said the company launched in Richmond as part of a “university pop-up tour,” on which it is dropping its scooters into the vicinity of 150 colleges and universities.

Long did not respond to requests for comment regarding the shut-down by press time. Long did not say whether the Birds plan to be fixture in Richmond long-term. The company does have a message in its app saying it’s seeking to hire “chargers,” people who collect and charge the scooters.

Bird has shown a propensity for sudden, overnight launches in cities it enters, having done so in Cincinnati, Austin and St. Louis, as well as in its home city of Santa Monica.

Its sudden arrivals have left municipalities wondering if and how to regulate such companies. Some cities have required special permits and that the scooters be kept in designated areas, while others have banned them outright.

Byrnes said he’s unsure if a permit process that would precisely allow Bird to operate already exists in Richmond code, but that the onus is on Bird to put forth an application to operate.

Richmond Councilwoman Kim Gray said City Council was unaware of Bird’s pending arrival, but added that as early as mid-morning Thursday, she’d heard from constituents that are concerned about the scooters clogging sidewalks.

“They just showed up,” Gray said. “I don’t know anything about it.”

Gray said she is planning to introduce some sort of ordinance regarding regulation of the scooters at council’s next meeting in September.

“I’m for positive modes of transportation, but if they impede on pedestrians and people in wheelchairs and make our sidewalks inaccessible … we have enough accessibility challenges as it is,” Gray said.

Founded in 2017, Bird operates in 29 markets domestically as well as in Paris. It has raised $415 million in venture funding, according to startup database Crunchbase. Lime is in over 60 markets nationwide.

In addition to competing against one another, Bird and Lime also would potentially draw business away from RVA Bike Share, the city’s docked-bike service. There’s also locally run Kul Wheels, an e-bike rental service that operates out of Rockett’s Landing.

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13 Comments on "Electric scooter startup Bird drops a flock in Richmond; city promptly nets it"

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Zach Cutter

Doesn’t seem to be a lot of common sense by Bird in this situation. Having rode these in other larger cities over the summer I absolutely love the concept and enjoy riding them, but lack of bike lanes on some major roads make safety a major issue here *see Nashville where riders were struck by cars.* There has to be a way these can be used safely, but still maximize the fun and accessibility! Most of that seems as though it would start with communication between the company and the city…

Bert Hapablap
Looks like a company with a lot of venture capital but not a real solid business plan. Even if this was a ad blitz to get their name out there in Richmond, it’s a poor decision to just drop off scooters without engaging the city. There is also the issue of being ‘dockless’. I was recently out in Phoenix which is having a problem with dockless bike rentals and having these bikes just left all over the city on sidewalks and the side of the road. I like the bike rental model for cities but this isn’t the way to… Read more »
David Humphrey

While not smart on the surface of the action, it could be a smart move to get the City to implement something that would allow them more expeditiously than they would otherwise. I see it as the difference between “Oh this company wants to come. We’ll take a look at it after we get to these other things.” vs “Well they are here. We need to do something that regulates them pretty quickly.” I guess time will tell whether this is a smart strategy or not.

Abby Childers

I have newfound respect for Kim Gray. Her and Chris Hilbert have been listening to their constituents and standing up to the bike nazis.

Brett A Hunnicutt

Please elaborate on your definition of a bike nazi. I would love to learn more.

Abby Childers
From Urban Dictonary: “Bike Nazi -A self-righteous, confrontational individual whose preferred mode of transportation is a bicycle. They are frequently (thought not always) riding fixed-gear or custom-designed bikes and also tend to have the hipster or bike messenger look. While hippies and bike racers may share their love of bikes, a Bike Nazis is much more likely to be a scofflaw and confrontational toward strangers. Bike Nazis are often vegan and believe their choice of transportation makes them superior to those who choose to drive cars (and those who drive out of necessity), as well as truckers, public transit drivers… Read more »
Betsy Gardner
I love the idea but agree the launch was boneheaded. Richmond wants alternate transportation options outside of cars and this could work but it will take coordination with the city. One of the biggest issues is people dumping them wherever. It’s like a created outlet for rude behavior. The city hasn’t learned to walk the walk yet after talking the talk of alternate modes of transportation. Create hubs or designated rules for dropoff (that LIme and Bird help pay for) to keep them from being dropped wherever. Set rules on helmets and use. Bird already has big issues with vandalism… Read more »
Tom Wilson
To all you who claim this was a poor move by Bird, are you new residents in Richmond? Have you missed the fact that because of our city’s inability to do anything productive in a timely manner or be forward thinking in the least bit, we have missed out on so much productive growth and change over the past years? No need to look any further than Charlotte for your evidence. While the city may have mobilized at moment’s notice to “make a statement” about impounding these things, don’t fool yourself into thinking that the approval would have been anywhere… Read more »
Matt Faris

Tom, should Richmond (or any city for that matter) be able to just set up shop on any sidewalk at any time? You make good points, but this isn’t the wild, wild, west coast. Is there any way to track ownership, or liability, etc., if there is no process whereby citizens can hold the supplier (any form of business) responsible for bad actions what do they do? I don’t think registering a business with the city is a bad thing.

Fred Squire

Like it or not, Tom has a point. The City would have drug their feet on this so long another vendor would have come along and done this first.

Believing the City is looking out for the interests of the taxpayer in a timely manner is about #87 on their priority list.

#86 is the DPW doing work for the Mayor’s church on the taxpayer’s dime.

Matt Faris

No question about that Fred Never mind the mandated ADA requirements for schools.

Bert Hapablap
No, actually I’ve lived my whole life of over 40 years. And yes, I get what you’re saying about the city doing anything in a timely manner but that’s not an excuse to go rogue. If that was the case, no one would bother to get a driver’s license from the DMV because they certainly don’t know the meaning of timely. Like it or not, they have to go through the city just like everyone else. Sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if the city gave them an overly hard time getting setup but that’s what the courts are for. Anyone… Read more »
Ed Christina
I live here and I dont want a bunch of tech bros dropping scooters off with no thought to if they would be on sidewalks (stupid and dangerous) or bike lanes(limited). How many companies could drop off scooters? How do you know they have working breaks? How do you know the headlights work? How do we know these things will not burst into flame? Maybe they all are safe and in good order now, but how often do brakes need to be checked on these things? Are they paying any taxes in the Commonwealth? Why should I let some jerk… Read more »