Driven and Reviewed: The BIRD

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

It’s one of those scenarios that brings to mind William Gibson’s maxim about the future being unevenly distributed. About 90 days ago, approximately 1,000 Chinese-made electric scooters appeared more or less overnight around Santa Monica and Venice in California. Each scooter featured an individual QR code and directions to download the “BIRD” app. With that app, anybody with a credit card and a California driver’s license could “unlock” the scooter and ride it anywhere in the area. The cost? One dollar to start, and 15 cents a minute.

Seemingly overnight, the beach paths and access roads of Santa Monica were overrun with people whipping along at the BIRD top speed of 22 miles per hour. Quite a few of them got hurt. The city of Santa Monica was very unhappy. Apparently the BIRD deployment had happened without notice — and without so much as a vendor’s license application. They sued BIRD for operating a business without a permit. Worse than that, they deployed the cops to issue tickets to anybody breaking any law on a BIRD, from operation without a helmet to parking on a right of way.

BIRD paid $300,000 in fines, limited the speed of the scooters to 15 mph, and started “cracking down” on underage riders. But the BIRDs remain controversial, to say the least. Naturally, the minute I heard about these things I figured I’d better high-tail it to Venice for some BIRD time of my own. As everybody knows, Los Angeles is the home of Motor Trend, a magazine where rumor says the editorial staff is not permitted to test the cars on track, so I figured I’d honor that tradition by bringing a test driver who has won races on both two wheels and four to operate the BIRD at its very limit.

BIRD, which is in all caps like MINI keeps trying to be, picks up nearly all the scooters every night for charging. They’re then deposited in groups between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. every morning all around Venice and Santa Monica. There’s no limit to how far you can take a BIRD other than the range — according to some accounts, people have ridden BIRDs to LAX and Beverly Hills.

My test driver and I left our Venice Beach digs at 8 a.m. sharp to find some BIRDs. I fired up the app, which told me that there was a BIRD down the street. When we got there, however, there was no visible scooter. On a hunch, I looked over the privacy wall of the house next to where the app was displaying the BIRD.

Looks like some Venice homeowner decided to make his BIRD private. It’s actually a brilliant idea: by putting the BIRD behind your gate you can effectively have a free reservation. Everywhere else, it’s first come first serve.

The app told us there was a group of 12 BIRDs where North Venice Blvd ended at a parking lot. As we arrived, a group of seven Latino teenagers started trying to activate a few of them. They chatted excitedly in Spanish about the app and the speed of the scooters. Unfortunately for them, only three of them had driver’s licenses. Those three quickly got their BIRDs up and running; the most enthusiastic of them promptly drove at full speed into a parked car. He was a bit scraped but the scooter seemed perfectly fine. After some discussion, six of the seven teens rode off double-up, leaving the odd man out to run after them.

“Silly dudes,” I told my pro driver, “they didn’t realize they needed a driver’s license.” My amusement turned to embarrassment a few moments later, because the BIRD app doesn’t recognize or accept an Ohio license. I had to get a friend of mine to let me borrow his phone, which was already connected to a BIRD account. Thus equipped, my tester and I were off and riding in moments, jamming down the Venice bike path at full speed. Incidentally, we tried to “steal” a BIRD just for fun, moving it before it had been unlocked. It beeped like crazy until we stopped rolling it. Not that a little bit of beeping would deter a thief, of course, but what use is a scooter that you can’t ride?

This is how you ride the BIRD: stand on it like a “Razor” scooter and push with your foot until it’s doing about 2 mph. At that point, the thumb-operated throttle comes into play, taking you up to 15 mph in a silent rush. A single brake lever on the left side of the narrow handlebars activates a disc brake on the rear wheel. It can lock said rear wheel at any speed; the day before, riding a tandem bike up the beach, I’d become accustomed to the slide-squeak noise of BIRDs being panic-braked all around me.

There’s enough room for two people to ride a BIRD as long as they are emotionally involved or one of them is just eight years old. Our combined weight of 305 pounds didn’t seem to bother the scooter at all. Maneuverability is excellent if you are accustomed to the way Razor scooters ride — sadly, I am. Of course, the BIRD is adult-scaled compared to a Razor, particularly in terms of handlebar height.

After an uneventful trip of about a mile and a half, I stepped off the BIRD and handed it to my professional tester with strict instructions to run it FLAT OUT. He kicked up to speed then started a series of max-velocity figure-eights, periodically locking the back wheel for a couple of slides on areas where sand had drifted out from the beach to the parking lot. It made me a bit nervous watching him — I’ve spent more than nine years funding this fellow’s career, so I have a lot invested and I can’t tolerate any crashing on his part. To my relief, he completed his testing and returned the BIRD to me. I guess now I know how the R&T management feels every time I don’t wreck a six-figure car during our PCOTY timing session.

“What did you think?” I inquired.

“It’s very easy to ride,” he said, “but I wish it was faster.” He didn’t mention understeer at the limit, which seemed unusual, but I did not pursue it. He did, however, note that it is difficult for a small hand to keep the thumb-operated throttle at maximum. I’m sure BIRD is fine with that since in theory you have to be 18 to ride one. “I wish we had BIRDs back home,” he continued, “and also I want some cotton candy, I saw some at a store that we rode by.” After securing the cotton candy, we left the BIRD next to our temporary home and locked it with the phone. Total cost: less than four dollars for two miles’ worth of riding.

Later on that evening, we walked through Venice to a pizza place about a mile off the shore. The BIRDs were omnipresent, zipping by us and casting shadows in the headlights of the cars they cut off with gleeful abandon. It became glaringly obvious that the social taboo regarding drunk or stoned driving does not in any way apply to BIRDs. We saw them lying on the ground, propped against alley walls, kickstanded on sidewalks. The app reported that most of them were completely out of battery.

I did a bit of research to figure out how much a BIRD costs. I’m pretty sure that the basis for the BIRD is the Xiaomi M365, which costs $500 before you add the remote unlocking capability. By my calculations, a BIRD pays for itself in about two months, give or take. After that, it’s nothing but profit, to the tune of 20 or 30 dollars a day.

Right now there’s more than a little bit of novelty demand driving their use, to say nothing of their particular usefulness as tourist-mobiles up and down the coast. Still, I can’t help but think that BIRD is giving us a glimpse of the future at its most disruptive. After all, it’s not uncommon for a five-mile commute in Los Angeles to take the better part of an hour. A BIRD could get you there in half that time, or less, for a total daily commute cost of maybe nine bucks. At that price level, even the omnipresent baristas can take advantage. There’s just one question: Can you trust BIRD to be around in the future? If you sold your car and relied on the service, would it be there six months now? Or would you walk out one day to find that these BIRDs… have flown?

[Images: Jack Baruth/TTAC]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Stevelovescars Stevelovescars on Mar 06, 2018

    Funny, I was just in Venice on Sunday meeting an old friend and we grabbed a couple of these to ride down to the beach and enjoy the sunshine before I headed to LAX (by car). They seemed to be all over the place, every block around Abbott Kinney had at least a half-dozen sitting on the sidewalk or near bike racks on the street. I saw quite a few being ridden around the beach area as well. This business seems to make sense in touristy areas like this where someone could jump on and have some fun. It seems like more of a novelty to me than a viable means of transportation for people who actually live there and might want to rely on these to get to work on time. If that were the case for me I'd just buy one for a couple of hundred bucks on eBay and charge it in my office and not worry about not finding one when it was time to go home. Then again, a bicycle would serve the same purpose for short trips and could carry some stuff on a rack. I had never ridden a small scooter like this and I was surprised at how easy it was to ride. It felt pretty stable but bumps really threw it off course since the tires are tiny and there is no suspension at all. There was a sticker on the scooter with rules about wearing helmets which were repeated on the app. I hadn't planned on riding so I obviously didn't have one nor did I see any of the doze or so others on these wearing any type of protection.

  • HotPotato HotPotato on Mar 07, 2018

    I'm a cranky old fart but I think "dockless shared" anything -- dockless shared scooters, dockless shared bikes, dockless shared spouses -- is an invitation to vandalism, abuse, and severe neighbor annoyance. Conventional docked bike share, on the other hand, makes all the sense in the world: the bike charges the user until the bike is safely back in the dock, so the bike you're looking to borrow is always right there waiting for you where the app said it would be, usually charged up if it's electric...and the dock is a bit of a social gathering space where you can make new friends too. (Plus those docked bikes are crazy durable, though generally underbraked.) In parts of China and the UK (I'm looking at you, Manchester), dockless bike sharing ended up with bikes kept locked on people's private property, bikes thrown in the canal, bikes parked in the middle of the damn sidewalk, etc. Can't see that it would be any different with scooters. "If men were angels, no docks would be necessary," or something to that effect. In its defense, I witnessed dockless bike sharing performing just as advertised in San Diego's Gaslight district, so maybe dockless mobility sharing can work in areas where the locals aren' know...chavvy.