News & Features » News and Features

Guerrilla Scooters

As city officials grapple with regulations, Bird and Lime take different approaches.


Despite receiving a cease and desist letter from the city more than a month ago, Bird Rides continues to operate illegally in Richmond. City officials have notified the California company that its scooters are unauthorized, and dozens of the its dockless electric scooters remain scattered around the city. As Seibert's Towing rounds up the vehicles and Bird racks up an ever-growing bill of impoundment fees, a competitor takes a different approach.

"In my experience, nobody likes surprises," says Todd O'Boyle, strategic development director at Lime, a mobility company with dockless bike shares and scooters all over the world. "We didn't build this company by popping up in the middle of the night with hundreds of scooters to the frustration of our local government partners."

O'Boyle says Lime approached Richmond officials early this summer, before Bird unexpectedly dropped 100 scooters overnight in August. He says he wants to work with the city to enter the market "the right way," and there's frustration on both sides when a competing company doesn't play by the rules.

"We've had to balance the need for introducing a comprehensive permit program with unregulated scooters already being in the city," Mayor Levar Stoney tells Style, adding that nobody from Bird approached the city before dropping the scooters in August. "And I have to say, the forgiveness rather than permission approach has made the process more difficult."

The mayor's office has drafted an ordinance outlining a dockless scooter pilot program, dated Sept. 24. The measure, which has not yet been approved by City Council, outlines a list of safety requirements for the operation of motorized dockless scooters and bicycles. Permit holders shall "strongly promote helmet use through their electronic user interface" and "provide routine maintenance to ensure the safety features are properly functioning." Such vehicles not in use must not be placed or parked in a vehicle travel lane, in a multiuse path, on a bus boarding platform, within the sidewalk next to a disabled parking zone or about a dozen other locations.

Stoney acknowledges and shares concern for safety issues on Richmond's congested streets. Bike lanes are limited now, but Stoney says that in proposing the permit program he's made safety a priority.

As for the cost, the ordinance states that companies seeking to operate dockless vehicle programs in Richmond will pay $1,500 to apply for a permit and then an annual fee of $40,000 to operate as many as 100 scooters. From 101 to 200 scooters will cost $60,000, and 201 to 500 will cost $80,000. Stoney says those fees would cover the city's administrative costs for regulating the vehicles.

O'Boyle says this cost may be prohibitive for Lime. A draft ordinance in Durham, North Carolina, a city comparable in size to Richmond, calls for a fee of $100 per scooter — about a quarter of what Richmond's asking.

"It's certainly the highest I've seen for a city this size," O'Boyle says of the fee Stoney proposed. "That pencils out to $400 per vehicle, which is higher than any comparable city I'm aware of."

He frames the issue a different way.

"What's the right fleet size to meet local demand?" he says, noting that the company uses a utilization-driven cap to determine fleet sizes. "As long as we're getting three to four trips per vehicle per day, we're meeting local transportation needs, and we can continue to bring more."

O'Boyle notes that if Lime ever falls below that number, it will have matched supply with demand. "That way, we don't have to guess what the right number is, the market will let us know," he says.

According to Stoney, the $40,000 annual fee is based on Bird's revenue sharing program, which gives the city $1 per vehicle per day. For 100 scooters, that comes in at $36,500 per year.

"We decided to use this model instead of the per-user fee so the city doesn't lose any money if the company slows down the number of scooters in winter, say from 100 to 50," Stoney says. "This is the cost of doing business in the city."

Between now and the City Council's final vote, which likely won't be for another several weeks, the public will have the opportunity to share any concerns about the pilot program. In the meantime, though, Stoney says he intends to "stand firm" on the $40,000 fee.

"I think it's a popular form of transportation in the city," Stoney says. "And if they want to operate in the city, I'm sure they'll find the means necessary to locate here."

As of the afternoon of Oct. 1, the Bird smartphone app indicates that more than 50 Bird scooters are currently docked in the city. Since arriving in Richmond in August, the company has accumulated more than $100,000 in impoundment fees. Stoney says Seibert's Towing will continue impounding the vehicles, returning them to the company only if it coughs up the money to cover the fees. Stoney suspects that Bird "has a model when it comes to something like this," and may write off confiscation and code violations as a cost of doing business.

"It's my hope that they clear that up before they are officially operating here in the city," Stoney says. "In government and in civil society, there have to be rules of operation, and it's my hope that any company that chooses to do business with our city follows the basic rules and regulation that we lay out."

Stoney doesn't know exactly how many scooters have been grabbed off the sidewalks and locked up since the initial drop, but he says he's seen pictures and it's "a lot." He's been supportive of creative transportation options since Lime first approached the city months ago, he says, and he'd especially like to see access in low-income neighborhoods, which is also specified in the ordinance. Both Bird and Lime offer discounted fees for riders who qualify for state or federal assistance programs.

Stoney says the scooters are an innovative approach to last-mile transportation options, but it's going to take private companies like Bird and Lime coming to the table. "Lime has been more agreeable to that approach. Bird, not so much," the mayor says.

Bird representatives did not return calls for comment. S