To travel “as the crow flies” means taking a direct route free of obstacles and the new Santa Monica company Bird wants to bring that ease of travel to street level with a fleet of rentable electric scooters.

The company launched in September and Founder Travis VanderZanden said he moved his family to Santa Monica to start the company because it is an ideal location to launch a transit company.

“We do think Santa Monica is a great city, I live here now, we’re headquarted here, we think it’s a great place to experiment with new innovative environmentally friendly transportation,” he said.

“We know the city has parking and traffic problems like the rest of LA. We feel like it’s a great city for all of those reasons and we feel Bird can have a big impact on traffic and parking.”

The company’s model is similar to a bikeshare or carshare program. Scooters are dispersed throughout Downtown and users can reserve/unlock one using a smartphone app. Each ride costs $1 plus 15 cents per minute. At the conclusion of a ride, the user can leave the scooter at their destination and lock the scooter using the app. Accounts are prepaid using a credit card.

VanderZanden avoids calling his “Birds” scooters due to the connection to a children’s toy. He prefers to describe them as short-range electric vehicles and he recommends riders treat them as they would a bicycle, riding in the protected bike lanes when available and obeying any rules that would apply to a bicycle.

The Birds have a range of about 15 miles and depending on the weight of the user, can travel at up to 15 mph.

He said the response to the initial rollout has been overwhelmingly positive and despite the Bird’s relatively small size, theft hasn’t been problem. Each scooter has a GPS unit and is connected to the internet so the company can track any Bird that is potentially stolen. An electric lock restricts wheel movement and triggers an alarm if it is moved without being unlocked. If the electronics are tampered with, the Bird loses power and the wheel locks engage rendering it useless.

VanderZanden said the he sees Bird coexisting with systems like Santa Monica’s Breeze bikes or the Zipcar model because his vehicles meet a slightly different need such as someone that wants to travel a small distance without incurring the physical exercise of a bike.

“The transportation space is large and complex and we’re all looking for solutions to the transportation problems,” he said.
The system currently runs afoul of the city’s rules regarding use of the public right of way but the company is hoping to work with officials to allow its scooters to be left on sidewalks.

Francie Stefan, Santa Monica’s Mobility Manager said the transportation ecosystem should be as diverse as the biological ecosystem and the dominance of cars is like overplanting a single species.

“The most healthy way is to offer a diversity of options that coexist for the long term,” she said. “That provide options for needs today and provide flexibility for when needs change.”

Stefan said a 2016 study of transit use by Santa Monica residents showed 53 percent of trips were less than three miles and 18 percent were less than one mile. While walking is a readily available option for the shortest trips, she said there are other kinds of trips that could utilize some kind of short range vehicle.

“We’re always looking for other systems that would meet enough user needs to be necessary to add to the diversity of transportation options,” she said.

VanderZanden is a former Uber employee and said he has always had a passion for transit going back to his mother’s job as a bus driver. For him, the Birds are a tool for reducing congestion and while there’s nothing to stop tourists from taking them on a joyride, he said the vast majority of usage so far has been by locals making short-range commutes.

“Our goal as a company is to help move people around cities with last mile transportation,” he said. “We think it’s the most efficient way to do it and reduce traffic and parking problems.”

For more information, visit The Bird app is available for iPhone via the appstore (Bird – Enjoy the Ride)

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...