Free the birds

Commentary

Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

The birds have left Milwaukee, at least for now.

No, I don’t mean our feathered friends. I mean the scooters that were buzzing around the downtown area for much of the summer.

In a gambit it has pulled in many American cities, Santa Monica, California-based dockless scooter-share company Bird Rides Inc., without any advance warning or notice, showed up in Milwaukee one day with dozens of scooters parked on sidewalks around the downtown area. By using the Bird app, anyone could ride the electric scooters to their destination and then just leave them for the next person that wants to take a ride. The company pays people to gather and charge the scooters at night.

The Birds were a hit with many Milwaukeeans, particularly younger adults. But city officials quickly condemned them. The day after the Birds landed here, the city attorney’s office announced they were illegal for use on city streets and sidewalks because they were not considered legal vehicles under state law. People who rode them could be fined $98.80, the city attorney’s office said.

The city filed a cease and desist order requesting Bird to remove the scooters, but the company initially refused. Many continued to ride them, despite the possible fine.

“This is a company that thinks it is above the law, literally,” said Alderman Robert Bauman. “They are literally giving the citizens of the City of Milwaukee the middle finger.”

Bird’s argument: their scooters are not actually “defined or prohibited” by state law or city ordinance.  Bird’s CEO is a former executive at ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, which also started doing business in cities that were not ready to regulate them.

The city filed a lawsuit against Bird seeking $200 per ride from the company for violating the law. When the suit was filed, Bird, which is valued at $2 billion, said its rentals in Milwaukee had exceeded 6,900 rides.

The company shouldn’t have started doing business on public streets and sidewalks without city approval. The scooters should be expected to meet basic safety standards and the company shouldn’t be allowed to have them cluttering up the sidewalks or strewn about the city haphazardly.

But there was no sign that was happening, and every form of transportation has some degree of risk and can be dangerous if not used properly. The city’s harsh reaction to Bird was off-putting to some entrepreneurs and Bird supporters.

After the Milwaukee Common Council passed a measure allowing the city to impound the scooters, the company agreed to remove the scooters voluntarily and said it will cooperate with city officials who say they need the state Legislature to pass a law to legalize the scooters. Gov. Scott Walker said he’s open to the idea, but the state Legislature is not back in session until January.

Hopefully the state takes action and the Birds are back in Milwaukee next summer.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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