Every workday around 12:30 p.m., I leave my desk, open my Bird scooter app and search for the nearest electric scooter. If I’m lucky, there’s one conveniently located just outside the office entrance. In which case, I scan its QR code and begin cruising around the sleepy family neighborhood just east of my company’s office park. (For the uninitiated, Bird Rides is a startup that provides electric scooters to people in L.A., San Francisco, Washington and soon, other cities; anyone can use them — all you have to do is enter your credit card information in the Bird app to unlock any scooter you find on the street.)
I ride around admiring the eclectic mix of old, single-family bungalows; new-ish Spanish-style two-story homes; and increasingly, the slew of nouveau riche modern homes that are aggressively stylish, sterile and charmless. This being L.A., it’s almost always sunny and pleasant out, and if the wind is particularly strong, I can get a faint whiff of the ocean. I wave at the landscapers and the guy who spends every day tinkering in his garage. Sometimes there are people walking dogs, all of them very good boys. The trip usually costs me between $1 and $2, which is a small price to pay for the most pleasant part of my day.
But every day, my colleagues mercilessly roast the hell out of me for this. Sometimes they see me outside scootering back to the office and point and laugh. Other times I try to extol the joys of my daily Bird ritual, only to have my exultations met with eye rolls and scoffs.
On some level, their attacks are warranted. There’s nothing cool about a grown man on an electrified scooter. But their mocking is also indicative of a larger anti-Bird sentiment, which itself is part of an even wider aversion to alternate forms of transportation. People absolutely hate new forms of transportation, even when they’re convenient, innovative and environmentally beneficial.
Every time a new form of transportation is presented, people reflexively shit on it — literally in the case of Bird scooters. In San Francisco, some have taken to rubbing feces on Bird scooters as a way to protest them obstructing the sidewalks.
But people’s real issue with Birds is the company and their scooters have come to symbolize Silicon Valley hubris, and the class war in San Francisco between moneyed tech yuppies and the city’s longtime residents.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter — tech companies far more responsible for the rapid gentrification and displacement in the city, but companies that exist in the digital ether — Bird is a tangible product, and thus, a convenient scapegoat for people’s frustrations with the tech industry.
That said, we see this class resentment manifest in opposition to all kind of transportation projects.
- Five years ago, extremely stuffy Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz called New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a “totalitarian” for instituting a bike-share program, the first of its kind in the U.S. She also did a lot of pearl-clutching about the unsullied masses riding their horseless, bi-machines through her lovely Manhattan streets.
- Aside from Mark Zuckerberg, there’s no more polarizing figure in Silicon Valley than Elon Musk, who’s constantly derided by conservatives and liberals alike for trying to build a fleet of battery-operated cars with his company Tesla.
- California voters recently shouted down a bill that would have increased the amount of high-density housing near public transportation outposts — an initiative that many urban design thinkers say would have simultaneously eased the state’s housing crisis and encouraged more people to use public transportation.
- Most recently, the City of Los Angeles proposed building a gondola that would take people to Dodger Stadium and ease the congestion to and from games. Immediately, people mocked the program.
These arguments are never about transportation itself, but rather class. Rabinowitz opposed New York City’s Citibike program because she thought the bikes had “begrimed” a once-beautiful city, and that they signaled the loss of a more sophisticated old school New York. In all the other cases, though, people oppose the initiatives because they seem to cater specifically to the middle and upper classes, and do little to address those who most need cheap transportation.
That claim isn’t illegitimate, but all of these alternate transportation projects still stand to have an enormous social benefit. Battery-powered cars are good for the environment. And taking a bike/train/gondola is always a healthier option than taking a car.
In the case of Birds, they’re especially useful in a city such as L.A., which has a shameful lack of public transportation and few transportation options that don’t involve sitting in gridlock traffic. Birds can help solve for the “last mile” problem of public transportation and promote a culture of pedestrianism.
So yes, having a bunch of Bird scooters block the sidewalk is hugely annoying, and an example of a great idea executed poorly. But Bird Rides is still a means to a healthier society. Or at the very least, a nice way to break up the monotony of the workday.