Scooter company Bird avoided low-income neighborhoods; city re-upped license anyway

By: - May 6, 2021 7:00 am

Photo courtesy of Bird.

One of the two companies that provides shared motorized scooters in Minneapolis was granted a license this year, even though last year it didn’t provide scooters in high-poverty portions of the city — essentially redlining Minneapolis in violation of city rules. 

The city licensed operators Bird Rides and Lyft Inc. to put out up to 2,500 scooters this year, and Lyft scooters began popping up around the city last weekend.

Under their licenses, the companies can put up to 40% of the scooters downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, and at least 30% of the scooters must be placed in “areas of concentrated poverty” in north, northeast and south Minneapolis. 

Lyft complied last year, but Bird did not, according to Danielle Elkins, mobility manager for the Public Works department. Still, city officials exercised Bird’s optional one-year extension this year, even though the city said in a recent press release that equity and safety were “key focus areas” of the program.

Asked about the company’s lack of service to high-poverty areas, a Bird spokesperson rejected the term “redlining” and noted the scooter company provides free rides to essential workers and discounts to seniors, veterans and public school teachers, among others. 

Bird is committed to meeting and exceeding the equity requirements of the 2021 e-scooter program in Minneapolis. We look forward to continuing to partner with the city of Minneapolis to ensure we can bring alternative, sustainable transportation to all residents, especially as the city recovers from COVID-19,” Natalie Sawyer, a spokeswoman for Bird, wrote in a statement. 

Asked why the city is letting Bird redline swaths of the city, Elkins said, “We’re taking that into consideration as we continue to work with them to see if they can meet those requirements and improve and what we can do to make them successful in that.”

Two Minneapolis City Council members questioned Bird’s compliance during a March 17 transportation subcommittee meeting. Council Member Linea Palmisano asked if the company explained why it didn’t meet the requirement. “Why would the city not explore the best deal for the city and everybody in it?” she asked. 

Elkins said Bird said the scooters weren’t being used in those high-poverty areas, and felt the scooters would be “in the way.” 

Council Member Andrew Johnson also questioned why Bird didn’t cover the area south of 35th Street, in his ward. Elkins said Bird’s proposal specified that it would cover a smaller coverage area, but the company still scored in the top two because it met basic requirements.

“It does very much limit where the scooters are placed and where they get to,” Elkins said. “I think that’s something that we’re definitely going to keep in consideration as we design the program (scoring).”

Johnson said it’s important to make sure every resident has service and vendors aren’t “cherry picking” certain areas that are in their “personal financial interest” at the exclusion of others.

Elkins said the city also struggled to adequately monitor scooter placement during the pandemic.

The scooters arrived unexpectedly in 2018, when about 240,000 rides were taken. Then in 2019 ridership exploded, increasing 361%, with more than 1 million rides, according to city data.

Lime had the contract in 2018 and 2019, when Minneapolis was one of Lime’s top 10 busiest cities in the entire world, ranking alongside Paris and Berlin. The scooters were strewn across the city, prompting 356 complaints to the City Council about them blocking sidewalks and building entrances. 

So last year the city required the scooters to have devices that lock them to a public bike rack, on-street corral or city signpost. And Lime lost its Minneapolis license. 

Then last year ridership plummeted 86%, with fewer than 144,000 rides, which Elkins largely blamed on the pandemic. Last year the companies were allowed to put out up to 2,500 scooters in Minneapolis, but distributed far fewer.

“Obviously 2020 was a really challenging year,” Elkins said. “A lot of things were impacting the numbers, the usage, so it’s hard to look at that and say it was successful.”

Palmisano questioned why Bird and Lyft put out so few scooters last year, and Elkins said the ridership just wasn’t there until August, as people got more comfortable being outside and touching things during the pandemic.

Lime and Bird are the scooter operators in St. Paul, which saw about a 40% drop in ridership last year, which was on par with the rest of the country, according to Lee Foley, director of government and community relations for Lime.

Elkins said last year Minneapolis residents just used the scooters less than St. Paul, and she doesn’t know why.

“We had more scooters out than were actually getting used last year,” she said.

Foley, spokesman for Lime, which is a Bird rival, said the company’s proposal this year would have entailed placing plenty of scooters in low-income neighborhoods and giving people in those areas an automatic 50% discount. But the city rejected Lime for Bird and Lyft. 

He said Lime had a strong proposal to serve the city with an emphasis on equity, and there was no rationale for the city’s rejection.

Elkins said she’s authorized to grant up to six licenses, so if a company doesn’t perform, she can add another license.

“I’ll be watching compliance,” Elkins said. 

*This story has been updated with additional comment from Bird.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.