Bird Builds an Illegal Nest in Oklahoma City

Dockless electric scooter service, Bird, is now in Oklahoma City. The birds arrived unceremoniously and without official sanction on Thursday morning. I was informed of the news by a younger, hipper friend:

My First Ride on a Bird Scooter

Within thirty minutes I was introduced to the following concepts:

  • An electric scooter that you ride while standing.
  • A service that rents such electric scooters to any adult with a charge card and a driver’s license.
  • Such a service that lets you leave the scooter on the sidewalk when you are done with it, near your destination.

Around one in the afternoon, I went in search of my first Bird ride.

The map said that there was one about a block from my apartment. When I arrived, there was no scooter.

I checked the map again. Supposedly, there was another scooter nearby, on the east side of the downtown library. No dice, again.

Undeterred, I checked the map again. The third time's a charm, right? The map showed three scooters on the north side of the Myriad Gardens. I walked through the bottom floor of the Devon Tower, near Nebu restaurant, (where you can find OKC’s best Twitter judge @OKCNightCourt), and across Reno to the park!

Bingo! I saw the three scooters.

I approached the scooter that I intended to rent, pulled out my phone, and, as instructed by the app, I entered my payment information and scanned the QR code on the handlebars of my scooter.

Suddenly, a young woman approached me and said, “Sir, I am sorry, but the scooters in this ‘nest’ aren’t working right now. It is the first day, and we are having technical difficulties.”

I must have stood there for an uncomfortable interval because she asked, “Sir, are you okay? I am sorry that these don’t work. Would you like a five dollar credit for your next ride?”

As I stood there, staring at her with a dumb look on my face, my brain was cramped up with the following thoughts:

  • This is the third dang time that I have unsuccessfully tried to ride one of these things. WTaF.
  • I can’t believe that we have had so many days in a row of such beautiful weather. Seriously, it was 89 degrees, in August.
  • She said the word “nest” with a straight face. Apparently, the collective noun for a group of scooters is a “nest.” As in “that nest of Bird scooters that don’t work, is illegally parked on a city sidewalk.” But, we will get to that later.

With four unintelligible syllables. I excused myself from the young lady that works for Bird and walked away dejected.

I headed up to Main and then east to buy a consolation-prize-in-a-glass at my favorite new hangout, Bar Arbolada. As I walked along the sidewalk on Main, I spied a scooter parked near a light pole.

Hot dang! I was going to get my ride after all.

I opened the app, scanned the handlebars and watched the quick animation that explained how to use it.

According to the animation, you are supposed to “kick start” the scooter three times and then press the thumb accelerator to make it run. The animation shows the person kicking the kickstand up and down three times, so that is what I did. Nothing happened.

I tried it again. Nothing happened.

Then, I mustered every last drop of common sense that I possess, and deduced that kickstart means that I am supposed to get the scooter started rolling manually and then press the thumb accelerator.

BINGO! I was off.

Riding a Bird scooter is fun. It is like riding a two-wheeled standing go-kart. At 15 miles per hour, they go just fast enough to be fun, but not fast enough to be scary. 

Are Bird Scooter Legal?

There is uncertainty surrounding the legality of Bird scooters in Oklahoma City.

On Thursday, after the scooters were suddenly dropped into downtown, the Oklahoma City Police Department, according to a report on NewsOK.com, said that operating the scooters on sidewalks and city streets are illegal.

It is common sense that these scooters should not be ridden on sidewalks. The scooters are approximately five times faster than the average pedestrian.

However, riding on low-speed streets and bike lanes downtown seems reasonable.

I searched Oklahoma City municipal code and found no ordinance that explicitly prohibits such scooters on roads and/or in bike lanes. I turned to a friendly, helpful City Hall team member for help. He pointed me toward the following code (emphasis mine):

§ 32-506. - Headlamps, taillamps, rear tag display lamp, and stop lamps generally.

(a) All vehicles driven on any City street or highway, except motorcycles and bicycles, shall be equipped with at least two headlamps with at least one on each side of the front of the motor vehicle. The headlamps shall emit a light plainly visible from a distance of 500 feet.
(b) Every motor vehicle, trailer, semitrailer and pole trailer and any other vehicle which is being drawn at the end of a train of vehicles shall be equipped with at least two taillamps mounted on the rear on the same level and as widely spaced laterally as practicable which when lighted shall emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear. Such vehicle shall also be equipped with two red reflectors as part of the taillamp.
(c) Every motor vehicle except motorcycles and bicycles shall be equipped with a white lamp which shall illuminate the rear tag display of the vehicle so that it may be clearly read at a distance of 50 feet to the rear.

I was hot after I read this. I mean, how could the OKCPD put the kibosh on something based on such a strict reading of a city ordinance. Motorcycles and bicycles are explicitly excluded from the equipment requirement. These scooters are 80% bicycle and 20% motorcycle.

Well, it turns out, that upon closer consideration, the OKCPD changed their mind. On Saturday morning, Josh Wallace of NewsOK.com reported:

Under Oklahoma City ordinance, police said it's illegal to operate the electric scooters along city sidewalks. Initially, police also said it was illegal to operate the scooters along city streets, but later clarified that there was not an ordinance that explicitly banned the use of the motor scooters.
There are other legal considerations surrounding Bird’s launch in OKC. According to reports, a revocable permit is required in order to legally park a scooter on a city sidewalk. There are also may be issues with state law.

Supposedly, the city has been collaborating with another operator, Lime, to prepare an ordinance to cover dockless scooter companies. Multiple city employees told me that the conversations did not include any kind of exclusivity for Lime.

Has This Happened in Other Cities?

Heck yeah, it has!

Two Boston area municipalities are seizing Bird scooters due to lack of permit.

Milwaukee is trying to ban them.

San Francisco pushed out Bird, as well as competitors Lime and Spin, pending a new framework to regulate the scooters and operators. All three companies entered the market in advance of city permission.

If you are like me and generally speaking, like the new Bird scooters, then take a moment to please consider another viewpoint. This short video explains it (in a slightly NSFW way):

Why Did Bird Launch in OKC and Other Cities When It Isn’t Completely Legal?

They want to be first-to-market.

The philosophy seems to be:

Get to market before any competitors, even if we break a few city ordinances. We will use aggressive PR, marketing and lobbying to mitigate the legal issues. The value of being first-to-market will compensate for expense incurred, such as impound fines.

Motorized, dockless scooter service is a new product category with multiple operators. Bird competes with the aforementioned Lime and Spin.  

For such innovative businesses, there are enormous advantages to being the first company to introduce the product category into a market (or city in this case) These advantages include:

Stronger Brand Recognition

The first-to-market usually has stronger brand recognition than the brands that enter second or third. Sometimes the first-in-market earns the privilege of naming the category. For example, in OKC, a sugary, carbonated beverage is often called a Coke, regardless of the actual brand.

Novelty Factor and Barriers to Switch

When a new category of business enters a market, there is usually an attraction to the novelty of the new service. I can’t imagine how many people in OKC have already, and will in the next few weeks, download the Bird app and take a ride just out of curiosity.

Once the novelty wears off, and a competitor or two has entered the market, it won’t be as easy for the second and third operators to gain users. The novelty is gone. If Bird delivers a high-quality, reliable service (which it didn’t for me on the first day), then users will have no reason to switch.

Do these first-to-market advantages compensate for the ill will, legal hassles, and expenses that come with being the party crasher?

Maybe. But only if the user experience improves from the first day. No one wants to walk all over town looking for a phantom scooter.

If you want to learn more about the subject, Google the phrase, “first mover versus second pioneer.”

The Last Mile

I have faith that our elected city leaders and dedicated municipal staff will make good decisions on this issue. Mayor David Holt and I had this quick interaction on Twitter:

In my opinion, the best way to go is:

For the purpose of operating the scooters, treat the dockless scooters like bicycles. They go roughly the same speed and take up the same space as a bike.

Regarding scooter parking, the Oracle of downtown OKC, Steve Lackmeyer has the answer: partner with local businesses to provide designated parking areas... or, dare we call them, Nests.