Bye, bye Birdie
*Editor’s note: The photograph of the Bird rider in a Halloween costume was staged by writer (and model) Ian McDowell and photographer Ciara Kelley on an empty and blocked-off side street, with McDowell only riding a very short distance and Kelley spotting for pedestrians. It’s meant to symbolize public fears over the scooters, and not to represent a real instance of dangerous behavior. Neither the author nor YES! Weekly condone riding a scooter without a helmet or while wearing a mask.
E-scooters banned in Greensboro
“At least you’re young enough at heart to try new things!”
So said a Greensboro police officer on Oct. 28 when I told her I’d scraped my nose and cheek falling off a rental “Bird” e-scooter on Elm Street. Her kind remark hurt my ego more than the lumpy Southside pavement hurt my face. You have to look old to get compliments on how youthful you act.
Five days later, the Greensboro City Attorney’s office ordered Bird Rides, Inc., the Santa Monica start-up that markets “the Uber of scooters,” to remove its vehicles from Greensboro.
I discovered this on Nov. 2, after fruitlessly searching for a Bird on Elm Street. Undeterred by my accident, I wanted to time how long it took to ride one from LeBauer Park to Gate City Boulevard, versus the time it took to walk (I now knew that the scooter’s wheels couldn’t bump over railroad tracks as easily as a bicycle’s, that has been my literal downfall five days earlier).
For the previous week, I’d been searching Washington, Greene and Elm twice daily, seeking evidence for Greensboro City Council at-large representative Marikay Abuzuaiter’s claim that parked Birds were a nuisance. On Oct. 21, Abuzuaiter posted to Facebook photos of the scooters allegedly blocking sidewalks on Washington and Greene streets. I never saw one doing that. I also never had trouble finding a Bird when, for this article, I wanted to experience riding it in rush hour traffic, or simply needed to get home faster than I could walk.
Until Friday, when the Bird app showed none downtown. Wondering if this had anything to do with the upcoming A&T Homecoming, I started asking questions, first of friends, then of the GPD and city council. It was until the end of the business day that I found out what happened.
In a Nov. 2 letter to city manager David Parrish, assistant city attorney/police attorney Andrea Harrell acknowledged she had been directed by Parrish’s office “to contact Bird Scooters and demand the immediate removal of the scooters from the City of Greensboro.” After consulting with the interim city attorney, Harrell contacted Bird and communicated the following in writing:
“I am reaching out due to mounting concerns in Greensboro over the safety of Bird Scooters, as well as the myriad City Ordinances which are being violated both in their operation and in the way they are being left on sidewalks and in streets. (Specifically, 18-44 (preventing the blocking or impeding of streets and sidewalks), 16-222 (preventing scooter operation on any City street, on any sidewalk within the Central Business District, and at any municipal parking facility), 16-228 (preventing the operation of any motorized device in a bike lane), and the Park Rules and Regulations (preventing any motorized device from being operated on trails and walking paths)).”
Citing “our several meetings,” Harrell wrote that Bird was aware of those ordinances and had agreed “to remove its scooters” in August, “then failed to do so.” Harrell reported to Parrish that she had informed Bird that “the City is requesting that Bird remove all of its scooters from Greensboro immediately” and that, as of Nov. 2, “any scooter found in violation of a City ordinance will be immediately seized and taken to 300 S. Swing Rd., Greensboro, North Carolina, where Bird can pick it up and remove it from the City.”
In the same paragraph, Harrell stated her understanding that the Greensboro Department of Transportation has given Lime, the competing company that rents ride-share e-scooters in Greensboro “notice so that it may also remove its scooters.”
Both Bird and Lime follow the Uber business model. Riders download an app to their phones, activating it by scanning their driver’s license and credit card. Before a ride (and hence billing) can be ended, the rider must take a photo of the scooter via the app, demonstrating that it’s been properly parked. Renting Bird or Lime scooters costs a $1 flat fee plus 15 cents per minute. Both brands claim to go as fast as 15 mph (I’ve only used Bird and have unable to clock one at more than 12 mph).
The scooters are collected each night by independent contractors who connect them to company-provided chargers and put them out again each morning. Bird contractors, known as “Bird Catchers” or “Bird Hunters,” receive anywhere from $5 to $20 per scooter, depending upon accessibility, and must have them on the street by 9 a.m.
When I first noticed the Bird scooters in August, I realized that few people writing about them locally actually rode them. So, I downloaded the app and tried it.
On my first ride in September, I ran into (fortunately not literally) College Hill Neighborhood Association vice president David Arneke, who mentioned his understanding that the scooters were technically illegal on city streets, but added that the police weren’t enforcing the law while the city attorney’s office was attempting to draft a revised ordinance allowing them. Unsurprisingly, nobody officially confirmed the non-enforcement, but a month of regularly riding Birds from Mendenhall to Elm Street without police intervention suggested it was the case.
On Oct. 3, I emailed deputy city attorney Terri A. Jones about the claim her office was attempting to revise the ordinance that made scooters illegal. She replied that “I have participated in drafting ordinance amendments with other employees from the City’s Departments of Police and Transportation.” She attached a draft copy but warned that it was subject to change before presentation to the Greensboro City Council, which she anticipated would occur on Oct. 16.
At that meeting, the council was presented with a document titled ORDINANCE TO AMEND CHAPTER 16 OF THE GREENSBORO CODE OF ORDINANCES WITH RESPECT TO SCOOTERS. The proposed amendment added the words “non-motorized” before “scooter” in Sec. 16-222 (a), which makes it “unlawful for any person riding on a skateboard, roller skates or scooter to ride any of such devices on any street” or “any sidewalk located in the central business district of the city.”
The proposed revision also included the following revision to Sec. 16-228: “The street or portions of streets designated in traffic schedule No. 11 are established as bicycle-street lanes for the use of nonmotorized bicycles requiring manual operation or standup electric scooters.”
Finally, a new section, “16-229. – Standup electric scooter share permit,” was added, declaring: “It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to operate a commercial standup electric scooter share program within any public right-of-way without first obtaining a permit from the Director of Transportation and paying the proper fees.” (The proposed ordinance and two documents relating to it can be found here.)
At the Oct. 16 work session, city staff made suggestions for regulating the electronic scooters that Bird and LimeBike ride-sharing programs have introduced to Greensboro. Including the proposed ordinance banning them from sidewalks in the downtown central business district but allowing them in bike lanes, and requiring the companies to obtain permits and pay fees to operate their scooters in the city.
Several city council members expressed reservations. The strongest was from Abuzuaiter, who criticized Bird’s business model of dropping its scooters off in cities without permission or prior warning. “I really have a problem with people coming and plopping down something in Greensboro. Most people are just joyriding. It’s just a toy.”
Ultimately, council members declined to give direction to staff members on how to proceed with the ordinance. Parrish said that the staff would research ordinances currently being enacted or debated in Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh, and provide further information at the Nov. 20 work session. Mayor Nancy Vaughan concluded by saying, “I’d like to see us find a way to permit it because they are cool and we are trying to attract young people.”
Since that meeting, Abuzuaiter has expressed more negative sentiments about the scooters on social media, despite her Oct. 21 posting stating, “I’ve really tried to keep in an open mind.” In the comment thread on her post to the Facebook group Greater Greensboro Politics, she wrote, “I’d love it if they were used for getting home from the bus stop, going that extra mile to work, etc. What most people are seeing is pure joyriding and being careless most of the time.”
In the original thread on Abuzuaiter’s Facebook page, YES! Weekly contributor Katei Cranford commented that “I’ve had my path blocked *way* more often by LimeBikes” and asked why Abuzuaiter was complaining solely about Bird scooters and not the rental bicycles that the city council has approved and “celebrated.” Abuzuaiter replied, “I honestly haven’t heard many complaints about the LimeBikes.”
As I previously noted, I’ve not seen Birds (either upright or on their sides) blocking a sidewalk. But photographer and Vintage to Vogue employee Ciara Kelley photographed several in the middle of the sidewalk near Crooked Tail Cat Café on the morning of Nov. 1.
I have, however, repeatedly seen parked LimeBikes blocking sidewalks on Lewis and McGee streets. I’ve also interviewed multiple downtown business owners and employees who contest Abuzuaiter’s claim that, “what most people are seeing is pure joyriding,” as well as the commonly voiced (albeit not by anyone willing to be quoted for this article) belief that the majority of Bird users are “kids.”
Easa Hanhan, co-owner of Jerusalem Market on Elm, told me on Saturday that he has seen “people of all ages riding them, including Zack Matheny.” When I reached out to Matheny, president of Downtown Greensboro, Inc., he confirmed the claim. “I do ride the scooters around downtown,” he wrote in an email on Sunday morning. “I have spoken with city officials and my recommendation is to work with the companies to have an agreement. Basically, we need to understand scooters are here and the future.” However, he also acknowledged that “we see folks outside of our office going at full speed down the sidewalks and speeding through intersections without really looking both ways.”
I’ve witnessed this on multiple occasions. Last Thursday, a young woman on a Bird whizzed past me at full speed as I emerged from Scuppernong Books, coming close enough that the wind from her passage ruffled the pages of my notebook. However, in the previous weeks, I had three similar near-misses with bicycles on Elm Street sidewalks, two involving riders on LimeBikes. None of the bicyclists were wearing a helmet.
I’ve talked to many people annoyed by the presence of Birds downtown, although they overwhelming cited the careless way some ride them rather than where they’re parked as the problem. But I’ve also spoken to many supportive of their use and presence.
Both Karen Stratman, owner of Crooked Tail Cat Café, and Jen Graf, owner of Vintage to Vogue Boutique, told me that there had been days when the ongoing water and sewer rehabilitation has severely limited automobile access to their businesses on the Southside part of Elm Street. On one such day, Stratman pointed to every customer in her café and said that they’d all arrived on Birds.
As often the case with chain restaurants, no employee of Mellow Mushroom would comment for the record, but on the afternoon of Oct. 23, I watched eight people arrive on Birds or Lime scooters and enter that restaurant over the course of two hours. During that time, I only saw six customers arrive on foot, none of them from cars parked on that block.
Kelley, Terra Blue owner Sarah McDavid and Boxcar employee Kristen Mantz all agreed with Hanhan’s statement that people of all ages could, before Friday, regularly be seen riding Bird scooters downtown, with McDavid citing “whole families” and Mantz citing “people in their 40s and 50s” as doing it.
There does seem to be something of an age divide between some Bird opponents and proponents. Marketing strategist Shamira Azlan, 25, told me, “I typically use Birds when I’m downtown trying to hop to meetings up and down Elm Street. Parking can be finicky so Bird scooters help with that.” Program assistant at Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina Nadia Moreta, 28, called the scooters “very useful” and “a strategy for millennial retention.”
However, the most ardent advocate I’ve yet encountered is 46-year-old Mark Ballard, who identified himself as “an IT professional with the Greensboro office of a major transatlantic law firm” and said, “I also function as a courthouse runner and non-certified paralegal.”
Ballard told me that he suffers from a hip injury that causes him to limp 11 years after the operation intended to repair it. He emailed me the following statement:
“I travel frequently in downtown GSO to the state and federal courthouses to perform research, file motions, responses to motions, everything in between. I also go to the sheriff’s office and other downtown businesses. Due to my limping, this can be very difficult.”
His life became easier, he wrote, when he discovered Bird. “I actually think I was their first customer in downtown Greensboro. The scooters get me to my destination and back quickly and easily. I’ve obeyed all the rules including ordering their free helmet.”
But Ballard didn’t stop there. Noting resistance to the new technology, he became what he called “a Bird activist” and contacted the company’s marketing department. “I know there are a few bad actors out there, so I even went so far as to propose a new position with Bird other than Bird Charger. My proposed position was called a ‘Bird Watcher.’ This person would make sure Birds were parked correctly, and perhaps even hand out helmets.”
In our correspondence, Ballard repeatedly called Bird scooters “a great last mile solution.” He wrote that he has an appointment at Moses Cone on Monday, and that, “it’s going to be so much easier for me to hop on a scooter and run up Elm for one mile, than to walk all the way to the parking deck, get in my car, take 10 minutes to badge out of the deck, drive there, drive back, repeat, walk back to work, etc.”
He also said that his on-call schedule permitting, he intends to speak against Friday’s “ban” on scooters downtown at the Nov. 5 city council meeting, which will be held at in the Melvin Municipal Office Building at 300 W. Washington St. at 5:30 p.m. (due to the election, it’s Monday rather than the traditional “First Tuesday”). Unlimited public comment is allowed, and Ballard hopes “others whose lives have benefitted from these scooters will be present and speak out.”