News Story

Ann Arbor Locking Up The Birds — Bird Scooters, That is

College towns nationwide trying to decide: Go with the flow or say ‘No’

Ann Arbor authorities are confiscating motorized scooters left on sidewalks throughout the city and on the University of Michigan campus. The confiscations are coming in response to the arrival of startup scooter rental businesses such as Bird and Lime, which let people rent scooters through a smartphone app and then leave them on a sidewalk for the next customer.

“The Ann Arbor community has embraced our last-mile solution as a way to more easily get around campus and access local businesses in the area,” a Bird spokesperson said in a statement. “As Birds are impounded on campus, we will engage with the university officials to investigate each incident and take necessary action. We look forward to continuing our work with the school to build a framework that supports safe, affordable, and accessible transportation options for everyone in the community.”

People who want to use a Bird scooter sign up on the company’s app, which directs them to the nearest available device. Using the phone to scan a barcode on the scooter unlocks its wheels and makes it ready to use. When finished with a scooter, a user only has to stand it up and walk away.

The city of Ann Arbor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Birds cost $1 to rent and between 15 and 20 cents per minute of use. They are starting to gain popularity as a cheap and fast way to travel in cities, where they compete with city buses, taxis and ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

The university sent out a news release in September saying that although the scooters may be convenient and fun ways to get around campus, the university has to promote safety and security as its top priority.

“When you are finished riding the scooter, it’s important to keep it from interfering with the public right of way,” the news release instructed. “Do not leave the scooters parked on the roads, sidewalks, bike paths, driveways, access ramps, stairways, landscaped areas or near fire hydrants. Scooters must be parked in bike racks or moped parking areas. Please walk the scooter to the bike rack if you must traverse a sidewalk.”

Police are confiscating scooters they deem to be parked improperly, including on sidewalks or walkways. The company is then notified that its property has been locked up and is being held. This practice is problematic for a business that relies on riders leaving the scooters at their destination, many of which have no nearby bike racks.

Ann Arbor is not the only Michigan locality that has seized scooters. Earlier this month, Michigan State University in East Lansing confiscated at least 100 Bird scooters.

The city of Detroit seems more open to the scooter-rental concept, though it is placing caps on the total number that can be used in the city. Detroit announced it will now let both Bird and Lime deploy 400 scooters each in the city, an increase from the previous cap of 300.

Michigan's big college towns are not the only places in the country where authorities and two-wheeled innovators are clashing. A recent story in Slate describes how the startups are essentially following the model used early on by Uber, which was to introduce customers to the product by just showing up, and asking for permission later if it catches on.

In 2014, Ann Arbor was in the news for sending cease-and-desist letters to Uber and also to students who used the service.

Coincidentally, on Sept. 18 a new Michigan law went into effect legalizing electric skateboards and authoring local regulations of them. This kind of skateboard is defined in the law as “a wheeled device that has a floorboard designed to be stood upon when riding” that is of a specified skateboard size and has up 2,500 watts of power, with a top speed of no more than 25 miles per hour. The new law permits electric skateboards on streets with speed limits of no more than 25 miles per hour. It also allows local governments to regulate their use on sidewalks, streets, and crosswalks, and to ban them in certain areas.