How Bird plans to spread its electric scooters all over the worldAugust 1, 2018
Bird is making its first major move outside the US. The scooter-sharing startup announced today that its rideables would be hitting the streets of Paris and Tel Aviv for a pair of pilots that the Santa Monica, California-based company says will be its first foray into foreign markets. Bird is also eyeing other cities as it seeks to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the new business of electric-powered, two-wheeled mobility.
The pilots in both cities will be limited at first, Bird says, starting with 50–100 scooters and then scaling up from there. On Wednesday, Bird’s e-scooters will be available in Paris in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd arrondissements of the City of Lights. In the coming weeks, a pilot program will begin in Tel Aviv in partnership with Tel Aviv University.
Bird has named Patrick Studener its head of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, tasking him with the mission of finding new foreign markets for its scooters. Studener worked for three years at Uber, along with Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden, before leaving in 2016 to become chief operating officer at Wolt, the Finnish, on-demand food delivery service. He joined Bird in February 2018.
“There are plenty of cities that are dealing with congestion and pollution and want to figure out how to reduce car ownership,” Studener tells The Verge. “We’re exploring where we want to go next.”
Studener says Paris and Tel Aviv were chosen because both are “tech- and innovation-forward [cities]” and were interested in reducing car congestion through a broader range of mobility options. But when asked what specific permissions Bird has received from the governments of both cities, Studener is circumspect.
“I think, in general, we are super collaborative and want to work with the cities,” he tells The Verge. “This is a going to be a long project to reduce car ownership in the cities and bring the car trips down.” Bird is talking with officials in Paris and Tel Aviv “at both the municipal and at the national level,” he adds.
Since its valuation hit $2 billion, making it the first scooter company to achieve unicorn status, Bird has been looking to capitalize on the buzz by scaling up rapidly. And what better way for a company founded by an ex-Uber executive to do that than by barnstorming the rest of the globe.
Bird is currently operating in 30 cities in the US, though not always in compliance with local regulation. Much like Uber’s habit of begging for forgiveness rather than seeking permission before launching, Bird has crafted a reputation of simply dropping hundreds of scooters on city streets, building up demand, and then stepping back and watching as local officials scramble to respond.
Those responses haven’t always been positive. Officials in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have asked the company to remove its scooters from sidewalks until it obtains the appropriate permits. Milwaukee’s city council is weighing new rules effectively banning electric scooters and giving the city permission to seize them. And Baltimore is scrambling to figure out how to accommodate the unannounced appearance of hundreds of Bird scooters in recent weeks.
San Francisco, the city where it all started, is currently reviewing applications from Bird and 11 other companies that are bidding for a newly created scooter operation permit. But Studener says rules vary from city to city, and Bird makes sure to operate within the boundaries of the law.
“That starts with going and having a conversation with [cities] and ensuring that if we fall within any regulations that already exist or working together to figure out, ‘Okay, if this is something new, innovation is in a place where its outpaced regulation, and there’s a need for regulation, let’s figure out what that should look like,’” he says.
Europe may be more amenable to scooters than US cities, given the proliferation of bike-sharing services and the availability of gas-powered two-wheeled vehicles. But Paris, in particular, has been known to react strongly to so-called tech disruptors. In 2015, taxi drivers clashed violently with police in Paris as part of a nationwide protest against Uber. Studener says things have changed since then.
“This is not a short-term project. There are hundreds of thousands of cars coming into Paris every day,” he says. “Paris already has great infrastructure, but there are gaps in that infrastructure, and I think there are a lot of innovative companies like Bird helping fill those gaps.”