Portlanders are not alone in agonizing about the last mile — how to get that package from the depot to the front door, or how to get your butt from TriMet to work.
They might like to look at Santa Monica, California, and see how the last mile is being transformed by Bird scooters. These are little electric scooters — like beefed up Razors — that you can rent by the minute using your phone. It's the Car2Go and Reach Now model taken to its logical conclusion. Rent by the minute, zip along the sidewalks (illegal) and boardwalk (mostly illegal in Venice Beach) and abandon them anywhere. There's no docking, they lock automatically and they don't even fold up. The transaction is seamless, the payment hopefully painless, just another line on a bank statement.
Birds have become the disposable vehicle solution for flat, warm places. When you sign up, you scan your drivers' license and agree to hard-to-enforce terms of service such as being over 18, wearing a helmet and not riding two-up. The first time it takes under five minutes. Once you are in the system and you are a certified roving data point, getting on a Bird can take less than 30 seconds.
Then you're off to the races, which happen to take place on a sandy concrete bike path with every other non-car mode of transportation imaginable: furry bikes, penny boards and triple-wide pedestrians. You're in there with wobbly tourists who haven't been on a bicycle in decades, spandexed road racers who cut through traffic like a Tesla on the 405, and flocks of dorky Segway people.
Bird has staff to round up scooters and charge them in a facility, but it has also crowdsourced the work. Will Ermish is a surf instructor for Kapowui in Venice Beach. He teaches surfing seven days a week and collects Birds seven days a week. He takes them home and charges them in his shared apartment. Chargers are paid by the percentage of charge they put into a scooter, not on the number of scooters or the time they are held. I caught up with Ermish at the peak afternoon hour when the Birds are running out of battery power and he starts collecting them. He kept piling them up in a lattice formation. The bottom machine was out of power but he somehow overrides the lock and pushes it to carry them all. He was interrupted about once a minute by a phone-wielding tourist with questions either about how to make a bad one work, or the business model of being a collector.
I walked along with him for half an hour before he could be interviewed because he had his mom on speaker in the pocket of his hoodie. His oversharing included a line of entrepreneurial thinking where he expressed his hope of diversifying into rental properties. He'd been looking at prices of houses and apartments in places like Orlando and Salt Lake City, places that would hold their value and provide him a passive income stream. The scooters are year-round — surf lessons are seasonal.
He complained to her how his hands were all cut up from the metal scooters and how he hoped by the end of the summer to never see one of the effing things again.
He collects around 50 scooters on a sunny day. "They pay us 5 cents per percentage charged, so if you charge it from zero to full you get five bucks."
His electric bill is $50 for the month, but it has only gone up from $20. Bird pays him daily on the app. He's an independent contractor with official Charger status. The app lets him switch to Charger mode to see all the spent scooters littered around Santa Monica and Venice.
"I see the dead ones, you guys see the live ones."
It's a good supplementary income.
"Some days I just kill it I make $300 plus, other days it's been puking rain and no one's riding the scooters, so maybe $40, $50."
One rule is that they all turn off at 9 p.m. to dissuade drunks crashing around in the dark.
Ermish shares a 400 square-foot apartment with a woman who also collects, although she only gets about six a day. Sometimes the entire apartment floor is covered by them at night. He has to place them fully charged in special pick up areas between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.
Our friend's electric
Would he join Bird the company?
"Absolutely not. I think it's a great company, it's a great idea. If I'm an investor I'm all for it, I'm going to make money. If I'm one of the locals who's been here for a long time I'm probably a little bit..." he searches for the word, "...Frustrated. But you know you got to get with the times. The city's p—sed, the people are p—sed, but money talks. And when this company's making as much money as they are, I'm sure people will receive money so that this doesn't become a problem. And they'll continue to do what they want to do."
Like quite a few people, Ermish lived in a vehicle in Venice.
"I lived in a van for two years. I was completely satisfied, content and happy, and I could continue to live like that for a long time. I would buy a house strictly for investment purposes. I have no desire to live in a home."
He has a bachelors in Communications from Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. "That was many years ago and I haven't used that degree since. I'm 26."
The old guard
James Patton rides for Awesome Pedicabs. I found him parked on the Venice/Santa Monica line waiting for fares to take to Santa Monica about a mile north. Patton (yes, he's related to the author) is no fan of the Birds. "They need to be gone. First the company is operating here illegally, they have no business license, people are still riding two on one and with no helmets, people leave them smack, dab in the middle of the bike lane, they block the emergency service vehicle lane on the pier...Imagine a 200-pound guy hitting a two-year-old — and it has happened. Twenty miles per hour is too fast. I've seen kids get hurt, I've seen us get hit." His rant continues like this for a while, as he points out that Santa Monica is its own city and is more aggressively policing the Birds.
Venice is part of Los Angeles. "There just aren't enough bicycle cops down here," he says of the boardwalk."
The company, which is based in Santa Monica, began operating on Sept. 1, 2017. The city council voted in mid-March to create an emergency ordinance that would allow law enforcement officials to impound "shared mobility devices" that pose an immediate hazard or obstruct access to public rights-of-way.
The city filed a criminal case against the company for operating without proper permits in December. In February, Bird agreed to pay more than $300,000 as part of a settlement.
But like Uber, the 'ask for forgiveness rather than permission' philosophy is working. Bird claims more than 40,000 active users and aims to be in 50 markets by the end of 2018. They're in San Francisco and Washington D.C. which means they will get lots of mainstream media attention.
Could Bird come to Portland? Would city hall fight them? Probably not, given how quickly they rolled over for Uber and Lyft.
Would they work well here? Portland is notoriously short of motorcycle parking, so maybe this would fulfill a pent-up need for short, zippy rides. On the other hand, they're less stable than a Biketown bike in the rain.
Wilfred Pinfold, CEO of urban.systems in Northwest Portland and an expert on last mile solutions, had this to say to the Business Tribune:
"E-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, etc...I believe the demand for these last mile solutions is significant and growing so some will be successful. There is likely to be some fall out as options compete, but I believe this kind of solution is a great option for Portland to try."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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