Bird Scooters In Greater Boston Are Testing A Tech Business Mantra: Just Do It

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A "nest" of Bird scooters on Mason Street in Cambridge (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A "nest" of Bird scooters on Mason Street in Cambridge (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Friday is the deadline for Bird Rides, Inc. to remove its rentable electric scooters from Cambridge and Somerville. The cities have threatened to impound Bird’s fleet, which the California-based company deployed last month without permits.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has launched what it calls a “comprehensive review” of such electric scooters, which may violate a state law that requires motorized scooters have turn signals and brake lights.

So far, Bird has been undeterred — ignoring official warnings and keeping the scooters on public streets.

Flouting regulators can be risky, but it is a business strategy that has worked for other startups.

“It’s very deliberate, and it’s probably smart,” said Danny Hong, a partner at business consulting firm Bain & Co. The tech sector is one of Hong’s specialties, and he said Bird — with its app-based booking system — is following a familiar playbook.

“Just take the Uber model: Once people have it, people enjoy it, it’s very hard to then pull it back,” he said.

Bird, founded by former Uber executive Travis VanderZanden, has been launching in cities without warning — most recently in Paris and Tel Aviv on Thursday. Instead of seeking permission to park scooters on public sidewalks or ensuring that the two-wheeled vehicles comply with transportation laws, the company rolls out scooters before governments can say no.

Airbnb has grown in similar fashion. It has operated for years in Massachusetts without paying the state hotel tax. Lawmakers voted this week to change that, but Gov. Charlie Baker wants to exempt some bookings from the tax. The Legislature has ended regular sessions for the year, complicating efforts to reach a deal.

Even if Airbnb does have to start paying up, it is arguably a small price for the widespread adoption the company achieved before a potential crackdown.

Bird is similarly benefiting from delayed action by politicians. Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern voiced his displeasure when scooters zoomed in, unannounced, a couple weeks ago.

“It’s just not a good way to establish a relationship with the community,” he told WBUR at the time.

Yet Cambridge did nothing to stop Bird. Neither did Somerville. Both cities say they will start seizing scooters on Friday. In the meantime, Bird has earned some fans, including Boston City Councilor Matt O'Malley.

“It’s a useful tool,” he said. “As we talk about building our infrastructure and providing for multi-modal approaches for transportation and for moving people, electric scooters very much ought to be a part of it.”


The Boston City Council plans to hold a hearing on electric scooters in the fall.

The attorney general’s office has so far declined to weigh in, leaving Bird in a legal gray area — but still operating while public officials figure out what to do.

David Chang, who advises startups as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School and director of the Summer Venture Program at Babson College, said companies can sometimes win over skeptical regulators by going to market and building popular support.

“If regulation is the potential roadblock, and you find that there’s some traction that can overcome that and create this groundswell, then great; then do it that way,” he said.

Bird declined an interview request. It appears to have another strategy to get politicians on its side in cities all over the world. The company is offering a dollar per day, per scooter, to help cities pay for protected bike lanes.

This segment aired on July 31, 2018.

Headshot of Callum Borchers

Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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