In a less than four months, Bird scooters have gone from an unusual curiosity to a nearly ubiquitous feature of the city with more than 30,000 riders using one of the electric scoooters somewhere in the city. However, the explosive growth of the startup company has brought it into conflict with local regulators who are stepping up efforts to regulate the new market.

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.

City officials have accused Bird of operating without the appropriate permits and while the company does have a business license, the City Attorney’s office said that license does not cover the kind of rental transactions that occur when a rider picks up a scooter.

Companies that operate in the public right of way, such as a fitness trainer in a park, a bicycle rental company or a food truck, are all required to obtain permits for their activity in the public space and they might be required to have more than one kind of permit because Santa Monica requires a separate business license for each location that conducts business within the city.

For example, a food truck based in Santa Monica would be required to have a license for its administrative offices and a second license for the actual truck. The truck license specifically allows it to conduct business in the public right of way.

City officials said when Bird scooters are on display and made available for rent on the public right of way, such display of scooters constitute separate business locations which requires a City business license authorizing such activity.

To date, the company has applied for and been issued, a business license for its administrative operations, but no permits have been given out for the ad-hoc rental network.

Other kinds of rental companies operate locally such as on-demand car rental services, bike rentals or Segway tours. In those cases, the city said those operators have secured appropriate permits for office locations and offsite locations where rentals are permitted.

“Local law requires all businesses to obtain a business license prior to commencing operations within the City,” said a statement provided by the City Attorney’s Office. “This requirement applies to any and all business operations, including business operations on the City’s public rights of way. Bird operates its business by making scooters available for rent at ad hoc (unpermitted) locations throughout the City’s public rights of way. Bike, Segway or car rental businesses in the City operate very differently. Each and every location where bikes, Segways or cars are available for rent (e.g. the Bike Center) are licensed or permitted by the City.”

City Hall has filed a criminal complaint against Bird but despite the criminal complaint, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said he didn’t see the situation as adversarial. He said the current situation was due to vague rules governing a new kind of business.

“Bird is a new kind of transportation model and as is the case with all new innovations it was unclear what laws and regulations the company falls under,” he said. “Because of this ‘grey area’ we’re working closely with local leadership to figure this out and we’re optimistic we can work together to create sensible, modern regulations for new kinds of technologies like ours so Bird riders here in Santa Monica can continue to get around the city quickly and affordably.”

Bird has also begun an outreach campaign that allows users to email City Hall in support of the service. To date, more than 850 emails have been received by officials.

VanderZanden said they added the direct email feature after hearing Council might be considering new rules governing the service.

“Santa Monica has an opportunity to be a leader in implementing this new model of short range transportation and actually be touted as an example of a city that has been willing to work with innovators and tech companies to implement new, environmentally friendly transportation options,” he said.

City Hall is considering how to regulate the emerging industry.

“Staff is already evaluating gaps in our existing regulatory framework and changes or new frameworks that we could take to City Council that could accommodate these new models of shared-use/dockless mobility devices,” said Santa Monica Public Information Officer Constance Farrell.

Farrell said the City supports new transportation options and isn’t automatically opposed to the kind of service Bird offers. However, she said the City has an obligation to protect residents and proper permits are one way to bring a measure of safety to business operations.

“You have to ensure the public safety, that’s what we’re focused on is ensuring they have the appropriate permits and they’re doing their part to educate their riders about the real safety implications of these devices,” she said.

The Santa Monica Police Department recently announced an increased focus on enforcing traffic laws around the use of electric vehicles like the Bird scooters. Officers have been warning riders when the see violations but tickets could be coming in the future. Tickets for riding without a helmet or riding on the sidewalk could run $190 while a DUI on a scooter would cost $352.

VanderZanden said the terms of the rental agreement require riders to behave safely and obey the law. He also announced a new safety campaign that includes offering free helmets to riders.

“Safety is our top priority here at Bird and we’re committed to doing all we can to ensure that each and every ride is a safe one,” said Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden. “That’s why we’re offering free helmets to all of our riders and making sure all of our riders know the rules of the road and how to ride a Bird safely.”

The announcement included a list of rules for operating the scooters including only one rider at a time, wearing a helmet, being 18 or older with a valid Drivers License, utilizing bike lanes and following all local traffic laws.

The safety focus follows an accident earlier this week where a Bird rider ran a stop sign and collided with a car. The rider was taken to the hospital with moderate injuries.

The City Attorney’s office filed a criminal complaint against the company citing the lack of permitting and blocking the public right of way. A court date for the criminal complaint has been set for Feb. 1.

Matthew Hall

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...