On Tuesday, an entire city’s worth of electronic scooters — the west coast’s current obsession — went offline. The outage wasn’t a glitch, or MoviePass-style funding lapse, but a coordinated protest by and for corporations.
Like most California cities swept up in the e-scooter craze, the city of Santa Monica has had a complicated relationship with the microtransportation tech. Though the fleets of e-scooters and e-bikes are convenient and popular, the relative newness of the industry has left the market and city streets flooded with a number of competing products. Santa Monica launched the Shared Mobility Device Selection Committee earlier this year to choose a select few e-transport operators for an official pilot program to offer reliable service throughout the city. It was the sort of opportunity every startup dreams of — a bonafide, city-approved monopoly — and the competition was fierce.
The committee upset two popular scooter startups, Bird and Lime, when it decided last week to recommend proposals only by ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft over those submitted by Bird and Lime. The startups’ main complaint was that neither Uber nor Lyft actually have any experience deploying e-scooters; in cities like Santa Monica, Bird and Lime fill the niche almost exclusively.
“They want to give the entire e-scooter sharing business to car-based rideshare corporations,” said Bird in a message to Santa Monica residents. “Neither Lyft nor Uber has ever operated a scooter sharing service, and their services will be far more limited than what you have come to expect.”
The message came as part of a bizarre joint PR campaign undertaken by both Bird and Lime, which culminated in a perplexingly serious faux holiday called “A Day Without a Scooter,” where both companies deactivated their fleets for 24 hours in the hopes of galvanizing Santa Monican scooterheads into rallying at City Hall.
In a webform reminiscent of a political campaign, called “Santa Monica wants to kick Bird out. Tell the City you love Bird!” e-scooter startup Bird invited residents to RSVP for a “Save Bird” rally that evening by sending a pre-written email to the city council in support of the company’s bid. The provided message is long and written in the first person, but honestly just dystopian-adjacent enough to warrant a read:
I love Bird and I’m both sad and outraged that the committee's unjustified recommendation is to kick Bird out of the city where this sustainable, affordable, and convenient alternative to driving started.
It’s even more bewildering that a small group of city officials have recommended handing over this business to two car-based ride-share corporations that have no experience providing shared e-scooters and who so obviously would want to eliminate competition from an independent and locally-operated business like Bird.
I believe we need a clear and thorough examination of this city process which inexplicably scored two car-based ride-share companies that have never operated shared e-scooters higher than a local business like Bird that invented this model.
Please delay the decision in order to allow a complete review and audit of the opaque decision-making process and allow all applicants to submit written rebuttals to the decision. After written rebuttals are submitted, please require staff to return to Council with its recommendation and explain exactly how it got to its decision.
Bird is our friend and neighbor, and I would be deeply disappointed if it were to suddenly disappear from our community.
That VC-funding backed startups have adopted the language and techniques of activists and the oppressed is more disappointing than shocking. Uber, the poster child of both the gig economy and scumminess in general, has been on this beat for a while now.
Earlier this month, the New York City Council was set to vote on a measure that would force Uber to actually pay its fleet of workers a living wage (the horror!) and temporarily freeze its unchecked growth, among other things. It was, in short, the company’s worst nightmare, and it showed. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Uber pulled out all the stops, flooding its customers with a series of desperate (and purposefully vague) pleas for help on social media and beyond.
“The NYC Council wants to pass new regulations that could make your Uber less reliable and more expensive. Tell the Council: #DontStrandNYC,” read one promoted tweet, which came with an absurdly overdramatic video that provided no details regarding what exactly the council was voting to do.
Uber also attempted to coerce customers into lobbying on their behalf through phone canvassing. As first reported by BuzzFeed News, Uber reps called NYC-based customers to inform them that “the city council was trying to increase fares and wait times for customers,” and immediately offered to connect the user on the line with their city councilperson so they could formally file a complaint on the behalf of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.