Giving the Bird the Bird

Giving the Bird the Bird

By Dr. Cara Natterson

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 12.25.08 PM.png

If you don’t live in Los Angeles, you may think a Bird is just a winged animal that flies through the air. Let me disabuse you of this notion: here in LA, a Bird is also an electric scooter that flies down city streets at 15 MPH, typically carrying one – but often two – unhelmeted riders, many of whom are tweens and teens. Bird (the company) launched its pilot program here just a few months ago. Press for the company states that 30,000 riders used Birds in first 4 months. I believe it because electric Birds suddenly outnumber real chirping birds everywhere I go.

I will hand it to them that conceptually, Bird is a great idea. Creating cheap (no pun intended… or maybe that’s how Bird got its name?!), readily accessible transportation in a gridlocked city is critical. But sometimes an idea evolves quickly into a problem. And here’s where we are with the Bird.

A moment on how it works. My kids, who are 12 and 14, knew about Bird nearly instantly, and they were the ones to walk me through its ease. You just download the app and go to a map that locates currently unused Bird scooters near you. To unlock the scooter, you pay $1 – then it’s $0.15 per minute for as long as you keep it. Once you are done, you just lock the scooter using the app and walk away. Yes, that’s why there are random Birds scattered on sidewalks and front lawns all over my neighborhood. My kids tried to convince me to allow our house to become a Bird charging station – “They pay you!” was their big argument – but I took a pass.

My real beef with the Bird is that it is a great idea gone completely wrong. Its solution to the traffic crisis in our city is far outweighed by the risks involved in using one. I know I can be a bit of a safety stickler, but this is a no-brainer even for my most risk-loving, bungee-jumping, free-range parent friends. Check out the six rules listed on the “Safety” page of the Bird website. The rules are theirs, but the editorial mine.

·         15 MPH – The site states that their vehicles are throttled to 15 MPH “for your safety.” I can tell you that the person I almost hit while pulling out of my driveway seemed to be going a lot faster than that.

·         18+ Years Old – Not sure who laughed harder at this rule, me or my kids. Riding Birds seems to be the #1 most requested afterschool activity among middle schoolers I know. And in a very unscientific survey that involved simply looking around me everywhere I drive, a very large number of the riders I see are clearly not through puberty.

·         One Rider – Ah, how rules are meant to be broken. I watch in amazement as pairs of riders wiz down residential streets and heavily-trafficked boulevards alike, the back rider often hanging on for dear life.

·         Helmet – I have literally never seen a Bird rider wearing a helmet. Not once, not ever. Bird scooters are parked up and down westside Los Angeles streets, waiting for their next rider. They do not come with helmets attached. The website now states that free helmets are provided, but it’s completely unclear how you get one. Another page on the site simply encourages riders to bring their own helmets along for the ride. Um, yeah, that’s going to happen.

·         Driver’s License – By law, it’s required to have one in order to operate a Bird. Tell that to the sixth graders in my son’s class while they are flying down the street.

·         Traffic Rules – You are supposed to follow them. Bird scooters are prohibited on sidewalks, which means riders must follow the rules of the road. But all of those unlicensed tweens and teens who are riding them don’t know the rules of the road.

I rest my case.

Bird, here’s what I would suggest, for what it’s worth. Figure out a way to message young riders so that they can understand why they aren’t quite ready for you. And while you’re at it, find a way to connect with parents as well. They need you on their side, here. I mean, if your 12-year old daughter brings home an 18+ year old guy and says they are heading out on the town – I am guessing you wouldn’t go for it. Now add to it that the guy is a little bit dangerous, he’s definitely fast, and he might just take your daughter places you don’t want her to go. The guy is the Bird. Throw down the same gauntlet for young riders in our city and you will win yourself a lot of praise from parents who are just trying to help their kids survive the teenage years. Not to mention from a pediatrician and child advocate.

Oh, and while you’re at it, educate your older legal riders as well. Don’t just offer a free helmet – integrate helmets into the scooters and really communicate the importance of wearing them (for starters, it’s the law). Have teeth to enforce dangerous use of your vehicles, because when someone (or someones, more likely, since people often ride in pairs) gets hurt, you’ve got liability. And get ahead of new problems that are inevitable, like riding while listening to music through ear buds. If you are going to put people on the streets traveling as fast as 15 MPH without a shred of the protection offered by a car frame, anticipate how they will further endanger themselves. And then do something about it.

The City of Santa Monica is already suing you, and Santa Monica is a pretty liberal place. Take the feedback and do the right thing to make your product – and your riders – safer. As for the rest of America, stay tuned because Birds are almost certainly landing near you sometime soon.