Bird Global, remaining city scooter operators face uncertain futures

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Bird Global, remaining city scooter operators face uncertain futures
Amidst the uncertain future of dockless mobility, electric scooters stand at the ready in Alexandria. (Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

Bird Global, a major operator of electric scooters in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 20, 2023, to restructure its finances. At the time of publication, the stock price has dropped to 5 cents per share, a massive decline from its peak at $259 in March 2021.

Bird is also the largest scooter operator in Alexandria, with a cap of 450 scooters and 150 e-bikes.

“We are making progress toward profitability and aim to accelerate that progress by right-sizing our capital structure through this restructuring,” Bird’s Interim CEO Michael Washinushi said in a press release. “We remain focused on our mission to make cities more livable by using micromobility to reduce car usage, traffic and carbon emissions.”

Bird suffered a series of setbacks prior to this move. Founder Travis VanderZanden left the company entirely on June 30, 2023, after previously stepping down from his roles as president and CEO in 2022. Initially valued at $2.5 billion, Bird’s stock began to free fall soon after going public in 2021 with no sign of recovering, which ultimately led to the company being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in September 2023.

Sean Martin, shared mobility planner for Alexandria’s Transportation & Environmental Services Department, said he’s aware of Bird’s struggles.

“Bird has been with us pretty much since the beginning. … It was a bit of a surprise [but] they [gave] us a little bit of advance notice,” Martin said. “I’ve been in communication with them regarding their future plans and how they went back to the city, and they’ve reassured me that they do not intend to change up their operations at all.”

Alexandria currently allows up to 1,200 scooters and 800 e-bikes. The three companies currently operating in the city, in addition to Bird, include Lime, with a cap of 205 scooters and 100 e-bikes; Superpedestrian/Link, with a cap of 285 scooters; and Spin, which has a cap of 260 scooters.

Bird is not the only company to face troubles in the market. Spin, which fell under Bird’s umbrella following an acquisition last fall, has also filed for bankruptcy alongside Bird. Superpedestrian recently ceased operations in the U.S. on Dec. 31, 2023, with leadership expressing internally they planned to recall all scooters by the end of 2023.

The fall of Bird Global’s stock prices over the past year, where the price now sits at 5 cents per share. (Chart/Bloomberg Finance L.P.)

According to a Dec. 15, 2023, report from TechCrunch, Superpedestrian Director of U.S. Market Operations Alexander Berg notified staff on a Zoom call that the company would be closing down due to financial issues. With only 18 months on the market and having raised $125 million in equity, many believed Superpedestrian was poised to be a success, which makes the sudden closure all the more surprising.

The Times has reached out to Martin with follow up on whether Superpedestrian has recalled scooters from the city, but did not receive a response by our publication deadline.

Public opinion on dockless mobility remains largely divided. Users tout these devices as an easy-to-use, eco-friendly alternative to automobiles. Critics, however, argue the scooters may pose a danger to pedestrians, especially when they’re parked improperly, and to users who ride without helmets.

Shawn Eyer, a nonprofit professional in Alexandria, is an avid rider of e-scooters.

“I’ll admit I could have bought three or four scooters with the money I’ve spent on Bird, but it’s very convenient not to have to stop and lock it up,” Eyer said.

Eyer said these devices have been a big help to him ever since he first started using them in 2017.

“[On] a given day, it’s very common I have three or four places to be in a one-mile radius, and the scooters are extremely efficient. I would say more so than driving a passenger car to those destinations, both in terms of time spent parking and even in terms of navigating the streets,” Eyer said. “I am certain that on an annual basis, the scooters are saving me full workdays of time. And for someone like me, that’s very important. I need to be efficient, and I need to be as productive as possible.”

On the other side of the debate, there are many who say they do not like e-scooters, often due to safety concerns. In a letter to the editor published by the Washington Post, Washington, D.C. resident Elaine Zuppe shared a recent experience where she was injured due to a parked e-scooter.

“I was walking on 11th Street NW turning right on E Street NW this month when I tripped over the back wheel of an improperly parked scooter and literally went flying. I suffered bruises to my arm, chest and ribs,” Zuppe wrote. “For residents such as me, a woman in her mid-70s, that fall could have been deadly. I enjoy the life of [the district], but the scooters are making it difficult to stay.”

The Times saw a similar split of opinions when asking residents for their perspectives on Nextdoor. One user commented how she enjoys “seeing the glee on people’s faces while they are riding these scooters around town,” to which another user replied, expressing her frustration over how fast riders go and how “they don’t even park them on the side of the sidewalk or road. Just drop and go. No regard for people or other people’s property.”

In a September 2023 report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which compiled data from 2017 through 2022 analyzing injuries and deaths from micromobility devices, there have been about 111 deaths linked to e-scooters, with dockless/rental e-scooters making up 18 of those deaths. The report also found that e-scooters led to about 169,300 injury-related emergency room visits, with dockless/rental e-scooters contributing to 29,200 of those visits. The report cautions that the numbers related to injuries may be underestimated, as some of the e-scooters involved may not have been identified at the time as dockless/rental by medical personnel.

Inappropriate parking is a common sentiment shared by critics. Even as a fan of the scooters, Eyer admits that riders could do better when it comes to parking, but pushes back on the framework of the critique.

“Let’s say some wonderful summer day when people are out scootering, are the number of scooters parked inappropriately that block sidewalks or bike lanes or any other motive mode of personal travel – does that number exceed the number of automobiles that block something on that day in the city of Alexandria?” Eyer said. “It’s impossible for that answer to be that the scooters are blocking more people than the cars. So even that argument is rather weak.”

On Dec. 21, 2023, Wired released an article breaking down the harsh conditions fleet managers for Bird have endured over the past several years. Eyer said he was disappointed when he read about how Bird allegedly treated their fleet managers.

“The article that I read characterized Bird’s practices as extremely cavalier toward the people who actually keep the fleet of scooters running,” Eyer said. “These are contractors who invest in vans and equipment, and the capacity to repair the scooters all falls on them. I was dismayed when I read about those practices.”

In a Dec. 21, 2023, article by The Verge, transportation editor Andrew J. Hawkins argued that, despite Bird filing for bankruptcy and Superpedestrian shutting down, the micromobility industry is “doing just fine.” Hawkins argued Bird’s problems are reflective of their financial mismanagement and not the industry as a whole, citing the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ 2022 report where the data showed that dockless mobility trips have largely been on the rise post-pandemic.

Eyer expressed a similar sentiment to Hawkins.

“I can’t weigh in on any particular company’s viability, but I believe that it should be possible to structure a viable business model around app-driven e-scooter rentals,” Eyer said.

Still, the future for dockless mobility remains unclear. Paris banned rental e-scooters on Sept. 1, 2023. San Diego, which had four e-scooter operators just a year ago, has since seen an exodus of these micromobility companies. Bird was the last company to leave in November 2023, citing high fines and “onerous regulations,” according to Maggie Hoffman, Bird’s vice president of city growth and strategy, who spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle.

The city of Alexandria hopes to keep e-scooters in place, particularly because of the Vision Zero initiative. The Vision Zero city initiative was implemented in December 2017 with a stated goal of eliminating all deaths and severe injuries related to traffic by 2028. The city government’s official page notes, “over 150 people were killed or severely injured in traffic crashes in Alexandria between 2017 and 2021” while stating that all these deaths were preventable.

Permits for the four e-scooter companies operating in Alexandria are valid until March 31, 2024.

Martin said e-scooters can be a key tool in the city’s arsenal to reduce these traffic related deaths.

“[Vision Zero is] a commitment to achieve a transportation system that has no traffic-related fatalities or serious injuries and e-scooters and e-bikes definitely play a role in that,” Martin said. “There’s always going to be concerns with safety for all road users, but scooters [are] definitely an important part in achieving that idea of Vision Zero.”

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