The Eco-Effects of Electric Scooters

By: Brandon Sapsara

At the Spark Agency, we define the concept of conviviality as a set of principles for designing based upon self-sufficiency, human collaboration, and connectivity. Convivial design is an essential framework for driving sustainable design in a new regenerative economy where humans are in the loop, products are optimized for maximum utility, and eco-effectiveness influences design outcomes.

Convivial design principles are eco-effective because of self-imposed limits which place a high value on protecting the natural environment. Design limitations can reduce complexity, consider regenerative design opportunities and specify the opportunity to expend the minimum energy required to achieve the desired output over the lifetime of the product.

The electric scooter is an example of convivial design principles with such self-imposed limits. For example, electric scooter designers have enhanced human connectivity to the natural environment by reducing travel speed to the minimum requirement while optimizing the riders’ experience to the outdoors and emitting zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Alternative scooter companies like Lime, Skip, Spin and Goat are all competing in the same space with Bird and operate from a similar platform and design. For our experience journey illustrated below, Bird was what we bumped into first on the streets.

Overview of Bird

Bird runs on electric battery, travels at a top speed of 15 mph, and supports a max weight of 200 pounds. It requires less concrete road infrastructure because it takes up less physical space.

Bird requires no cost or time to maintain due to the sharing economy platform from which it operates upon. Note: At present Bird owns the scooters and maintains them and no ownership option is available through Bird. We need to investigate further to understand if there will be future long-term lease or rent-to-own options. For now, at a low cost, you can pay a few dollars or euros and ride Bird to work for 35–40 minutes. When you are done, kindly leave Bird on its kickstand out of the walkway for the next person.

Here is a quick rundown from our recent investigation and conversations with people on the streets in Venice Beach, Los Angeles — where Bird is headquartered.

Increasing Self-Sufficiency

One of the most significant burdens lifted by Bird is reduced reliance on unreliable and overcrowded public transportation systems in places like America that have outdated public transportation infrastructure. Purchase a helmet or order a free helmet from Bird, download the free app, scan the barcode on a Bird and away you go. Uber to Bird and no need for a crowded subway or traffic-induced-coma of a car ride.

Now, commuters in the following U.S. cities no longer need to rely on a car because they can simply jump on a Bird: Arlington (VA), Atlanta (GA), Austin (TX), Baltimore (MD), Charlotte (NC), Dallas (TX), Indianapolis (IN), Los Angeles (CA), Memphis (TN), Milwaukee (WI), Oakland (CA), Scottsdale (AZ), San Diego (SD), San Jose (SJ), Tempe (AZ).

Human Collaboration

Bird is designed for one person; however, the recharging process of the Bird scooter battery requires collaboration between nice local people and the folks at Bird. To become a charger, simply sign up via Bird’s mobile app and agree to gather up and charge Bird Scooters in their homes/offices or at a designated charging area. The chargers then distribute the scooters back into the streets at designated points. The Bird company incentivizes chargers to participate through the mobile app, offering $5 USD per battery on up to 20 Birds per night. Just like it states on the app, you can earn up to $100.00 per night while you sleep. To sign up, you simply go into the mobile app and enter your contact information, I-9 tax form, direct deposit, address. From there, Bird sends you the equipment via mail to charge the scooters.

Human Connectivity

The Bird mobile app experience allows for greater human connectivity in the app through the “give a ride get a ride sharing feature.” To give a ride, simply go into the hamburger menu tap the give-a-ride/get-a-ride button that appears towards the bottom to send a ride to a friend. Beyond the mobile platform, the immersive experience riding a Bird evokes a childlike nostalgia and is just flat-out fun! The experience is specific to individuals but can be done with friends or co-workers and adds a social opportunity to engage with others. Many people we observed riding were in groups, and we even saw a few couples sharing — although this proposes new public safety problems and is against the law.

Future Generation Product Iterations

Bird or any similar scooter company might improve on its product to allow 2 or 3 riders in a different type of vehicle configuration. Such a design might also include an aerobic workout pedal with hands or feet to allow for exercise while recharging and reducing dependency on electricity to charge the scooter batteries. The batteries could charge during product use, creating greater utility and a connected way for humans to collaborate/travel while reducing the amount of energy expended in transport.

Riding the Bird

On a recent trip to LA, I had the opportunity to try out a Bird for myself. Due to our work schedule, the only time my colleague and I had time to ride was at dusk… but once we got on, it was so much fun that it was hard to stop riding! Some initial impressions:

Safety

To ride the Bird, first, you need a helmet, although hardly any of the riders we saw were wearing one. This is a problem because safety is imperative and many riders we spoke to stated that carrying a helmet with them in the event that they might jump on a Bird is an unrealistic expectation. A good opportunity for collaboration between Scooter companies and Urban city planners is to come up with a safety campaign with solutions to install helmet lockers at designated points throughout cities. Another problem we noticed was riding at dusk was hard to see, but thankfully Bird installed a light on the scooter for added safety at nighttime. This helped a lot, especially when riding on the bike path where there was less lighting than on the roadway.

How To Ride

The best way to ride Bird is to stay away from traffic by using bike lanes and pathways where possible. Traffic regulations prohibit riding on sidewalks, in public parking structures, riding without a helmet or without a valid driver’s license. Before you begin riding, you must first download the Bird or related scooter app on a mobile device.

To begin riding, lift the kickstand and kick the ground with your feet three times, then push the throttle button with your right thumb while moving both feet onto the footboard. The acceleration and instant torque kicked up pretty quickly and away I went. Even at 15 mph acceleration, there is a risk involved in riding. We did not have helmets so I was extra careful and found a bike path.

The simplicity of Bird’s ergonomic fat grip flat handlebar with one left-hand break and two-wheel scooter design is that it is easy to ride; however, my large feet barely fit onto the footboard. For safety reasons, I was unable to capture a shot of my feet while riding. It was surprising that balance became instantly easier to maintain once the propulsion kicked in from the acceleration.

Insurance

Right now insurance is a huge gray area with respect to scooters. In one incident reported by the LA Times, a woman on a Bird avoided a toddler on a beach pathway in Santa Monica and fell off, breaking both bones in her right arm. At this time her health insurance states her car insurance should pay her medical bills and her car insurance states it will not cover a crash on a two-wheeled vehicle. Ride at your own risk as there is a gray zone as regards legal liability when riding motorized scooters.

California Law

Currently, the California Legislature appears to be ready to sign off on a new law that would enable anyone 18 or older to ride on motorized scooters without helmets. Bird is the bill’s sponsor.

San Francisco Ban

It is poignant to state the current ban on scooters in San Francisco. Crowded cities with limited pedestrian spaces such as San Francisco might benefit from designated charging and docking stations for Bird, similar to the Ford bikes in many cities. Many people were annoyed with Bird scooters becoming an impediment to pedestrian sidewalk traffic like this one (photo credit: San Francisco Business Times).

Currently here in San Francisco, partnership opportunities with parking lots and garages are being brokered to create designated storage space to keep the scooters out of the sidewalks. Several companies are currently competing for a limited number of operating use-permits to begin running again here in San Francisco.

The experience of the Bird scooters raises more questions than discovery allows time for at the moment, however, one truth is apparent. The scooters are a fun and exceiting transportation phenomenon with universal appeal that aims to granularly solve a problem where a gap has evolved due to America’s failing public transportation infrastructure.

Other Considerations

Of course, there are problems with the new scooter platforms, mainly regulatory and safety which we touched on above. From the devil’s advocate view it is easy to see how the Bird company, founded by former Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden, is perhaps blinded by quintessential eternal entrepreneurial optimism where humans behave in an orderly and law-abiding manner at all times. At present, the 2-billion dollar valuation and Series C funding round seems to have provided enough cushion to cover pending lawsuits while continuing to scale global operations for the Venice, CA-based scooter company.

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Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) student Brandon Sapsara is an entrepreneur, systems-thinker, collaborator, relationship builder, and creative problem-solver. Brandon’s background is grounded in continual Lean process improvement within traditional business environments from retail to banking to industrial manufacturing.Brandon loves storytelling and helping clients create unforgettable experiences.

Spark Agency uses an agile design sprint methodology borrowed from the likes of Jake Knapp, IDEO, and Google Ventures to speed up learning and accelerate progress, thus adding eco-effective driven solutions.

This post was originally published by Brandon Sapsara for the Spark Agency on Medium.com. Special thanks to: Ned-Bayne Powell for assisting with capturing insights and photos. The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks Brandon for permission to use his accompanying photos, and the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Ian Sane, Portland Bureau of Transportation, Nathan RupertPhillip Pessar, and .sanden.