22 October, 2019

Urban planning and the theatrics of aggressive scooter companies: This time the City sent the Bird flying

by Constance Carr

Tuesday October 8th, Luxembourg woke up and found that a scooter company had played a joke on the City. Burning the midnight oil, Bird Rides Incorporated had gone around and placed a bunch of its scooters on the streets of downtown Luxembourg City, in what on the face of it seemed like a comment on the City’s transportation problems. Or, maybe it was just a marketing gag. Whatever the objective was, it was certainly nicely timed with Silicon Luxembourg - an independent information platform and magazine dedicated to startups - judging by the three articles that were published the same day. After a week of controversy, the City eventually showed Bird the door, and demanded that the company pack away their scooter flock: The City wasn’t interested in making rash decisions under pressure. 

This little spectacle certainly wasn’t the usual urban planning, so it is worth a moment of reflection on what the performance was about. There are at least three issues here, which suggest that there is good reason to be, at least, cautious with the introduction of scooters.

Conversations take time and Bird didn’t have any.
The first question concerns urban planning, mobility, and the role that scooters might play. Clearly, Luxembourg has mobility problems, (as we have mentioned elsewhere, here, here, here, and here). Moreover, there is little political will in improving traffic circulation, especially as it concerns the 200,000 cross-border commuters or thousands of students and workers in Belval. Yet, while Luxembourg’s mobility challenges are deeply seated in the its framework conditions, it is rather optimistic and naïve to assume that a hundred extra scooters on the Kirchberg Plateau will alleviate the problem.

Certainly the role of scooters in urban planning is a relatively new phenomenon, and there isn’t much published on the topic in urban studies. So far, it seems reasonable to draw lessons from its closet cousin: bike share programs. And, these, have not proven problem-free (Médard de Chardon 2017). Nevertheless, so far, the main issues of scooters, in both scientific and public discourses, tend to revolve around sustainability, safety, and accountability.

Concerning sustainability, scooters are potentially very interesting, offering pedestrians and users of public transport quick and easy means of moving around. More research is also needed, however, to determine if the production of electric scooters, their batteries, and their computers are in fact sustainable. What are the value chains or systems of dependency are required in their production? Of course, we should not forget to compare this to the four-wheel clunkers that are the preferred mobility choice in Luxembourg.

Concerning health, scooters can be a source of fresh air and exercise. A favourite complaint, however, is that they also pose safety hazard and a burden to the health system. Of course, again, this complaint must be weighed against similar impacts caused by the gas guzzlers that dominate the roads. Still, a candid conversation about public health risks is justified in order to find the appropriate regulation.

Aizpuru et al. (2018) note that head injuries and lower arm fractures are the most common scooter injury. Kobayashi et al (2019) calculated that most cranial injuries involved alcohol. So, there is a discussion to be had about helmets. Yet, Allem and Majmundar (2019) observed that the vast majority of Bird's Instagram posts show users without protective gear. And, it has been observed that Bird, itself, is not thrilled about helmet laws, having gone after Californian scooter law. Others argue that helmet laws would kill its business altogether, given that spontaneous users would essentially need to, first, carry a helmet with them wherever they go.

Concerning accountability, free-wheeling global capitalists like the big players of e-scooters would probably prefer that everyone simply consider scooters as toys, there for the grabbing, and good for a joy ride. Yet, their distribution in urban space demands that someone take responsibility for cleaning up after them, bringing scooters back to docking stations (if there are any), collecting, repairing, recycling broken scooters, or removing forgotten scooters from tram tracks, etc. This is labour that costs.

It seems that Bird had a quick fix to sell to governing officials of a rather specific place and framework conditions. The scooter might be a good idea. But some balanced, tempered, process might be in order.

The business of data collection and analysis
The second point is that scooters are excellent data collectors, the fuel of the data economy (McNamee, 2019).

"[Users locate and unlock] scooters through a location-enabled smartphone. Throughout their ride, the app will track their progress, saving the path of their completed trip for later viewing. Scooter-mounted GPS units and wireless connectivity pair with the app-based tracking in order to verify app-based data and paint an accurate map of a user’s location. […] Although Bird, Lime, and Spin posit their electric scooters as environmentally friendly and accessible transportation, they also allow for unethical uses of user data through location tracking and extensive collection of personal information. Relying on loosely worded terms of service and privacy policies, these companies reserve the right to monetize customer data, allowing for sharing with governments and third parties" Peterson (2019, 191-192).

This raises yet unsolved questions about data sovereignty, regulation, and surveillance (Tusikov 2019a, 2019b; Zuboff, 2019). Bird is no exception here. Each Bird scooter, is furnished with a microcomputer that connects it to Bird’s digital platform, which presumably transmits some information about rider habits, location, etc. Certainly, according to the app permissions, each scooter user must provide access to location data, their photos, media and other files, camera, WiFi and Bluetooth connection, as well as control over the phone’s flashlight, vibration, and sleep mode. “Updates to Bird may automatically add additional capabilities within each group” (Bird Rides Inc., App Permissions, 2019). Triangulation of this data with other 3rdparty sources could provide rich information useful to City administrations. Yet, it would all sit within the confines of Bird Rides Inc.

The familiar pattern of rogue capitalists
The third point concerns the strategic if not aggressive behaviour of Bird and other e-scooter companies vying for market share in cities across the planet. Again, we are reminded that the smart city revolution is endorsed by industries who view cities are marketplaces for their products (Kitchen 2015). But it is striking that they also seem to think that they can simply do as they please as long as it is not explicitly forbidden by law.

Micromobility comes in many forms; 
some are also analogue (Carr 2019)
When City officials got wind of the scooters on October 8th, it was immediately annoyed (See Tageblatt article above and one from L'Essentiel): They had, after all, already denied Bird the permission to operate its business in public space. This, of course, was awkward for the City, having to publicly announce that they had denied a possible contribution to clean mobility and to ameliorating traffic circulation.

But Bird has a habit of dumping their scooters in cities without permission. Luxembourg wasn’t the first! In fact, it was simply a new character in a rather well-rehearsed drama that is characteristic of Bird's business model, and the wider 'scooter invasions' or 'scooter wars'. This 'war' is waged not just between scooter companies competing for market share, or between environmentalists and car owners as is often portrayed, but between City administrations and scooter companies themselves. Bird advertises that its scooters are already in use in over 100 cities worldwide; A quick internet search will reveal, however, that St Louis, San Francisco, Cleveland, Denver, Santa Monica are but a few that have kicked the company out, and other cities where Bird (and other companies) is permitted, such as Paris, Washington DC or Venice, found themselves scrambling to find a last-minute, befitting, traffic regulation policy.

This is a familiar pattern, isn’t it? Zuboff (2019) discussed this as characteristic os rogue capitalists to some depth in her book that is primarily about Google. First: Exploit a legal loophole. And, Bird CEO, VanderZanden, makes no secret of it: "Where there's no laws, that's where we go in." Second, dazzle everyone about the benefits of all sorts such as environmental friendliness, the ease of use, the practicality of the app, thereby throwing up smoke and mirrors. Via Silicon Luxembourg, General manager to Bird Luxembourg, Jonatan de Boer, adds flattery: “Luxembourg City is one of the most beautiful in Europe, and we want to keep it that way by not only helping to remove cars, but also making sure our scooters do not create clutter.” Third, generate some public controversy, branding its name, while it buys time for the fourth strategy: Cash in while local politics are sorting it out.

On one hand, such strategies reflect a certain business ethic that might be worth some discussion (Zuboff, 2019). On the other hand, in this case, it also reveals how weak cities can be when assigned authority over its urban space, and when confronted with such surprises. Could it be that Bird doesn’t care much for climate change or traffic safety? Could it be that it doesn’t even care if it is shown the door? Through its cloak and dagger operation, it may have already achieved its goal, after all: branding its name, and collecting, processing, selling data analytics.

The conversation is therefore not just about whether scooters are good or bad, or whether they are needed or not. There are questions about regulation, data protection, business development, and how City officials ought to react to rogue tech players and their urban theatrics.

Maybe for the same price (in the wider sense of costs to the system and to future generations), the government could put out its own scooters, give out fancy running shoes, or just work on getting the trains to move on time…

Aizpuru M.,Farley, K.X., Rojas, J.C.,Crawford, R.S., Moore, T.J., Wagner, E.R. (2018) Motorized scooter injuries in the era of scooter-shares: A review of the national electronic surveillance system, The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 37(6) 1133-1138.

Allem, J.P., Majmundar, A. (2019) Are electric scooters promoted on social media with safety in mind? A case study on Bird's Instagram. Preventive Medicine Reports 13(March 2918), 62-63

Kitchin, R. (2015) Making sense of smart cities: addressing present shortcomings. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 8, 131-136.

Médard de Chardon, C. 2017 A Geographical Analysis of Bicycle Sharing Systems

Peterson, A. B. (2019) Scoot over Smart Devices: The Invisible Costs of Rental Scooters. Surveillance & Society 17(1/2) 191-197.

Tusikov, N. (2019a). Sidewalk Toronto’s master plan raises urgent concerns about data and privacy. The Conversation. 

Tusikov, N. (2019b). “Urban Data” & “Civic Data Trusts” in the smart city.

Zuboff, S. (2019) Age of Surveillance Capitalism. New York: Public Affairs

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