When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency banished Scoot last month after nearly 10 years in operation in the city, it was actually giving the axe to Bird, a onetime Scoot rival that gained access to the San Francisco market in mid-2019 by purchasing Scoot.
The city’s decision left many commuters grumbling about even fewer options in a city where public transit is still far from its pre-pandemic levels. But San Francisco’s move against Bird was both a long time coming and part and parcel of a larger pattern. In recent weeks, the scooter company has also been booted from its own hometown of Santa Monica as well as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Zaragoza, Spain. This may or may not bode well for its plan to go public in a $2.3 billion merger deal this fall.
But Bird, by now, is used to being banished and fined and sued. The company’s behavior appears to be a remnant of the Uber model: Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Its aggressive tactics and sudden ubiquity have polarized public opinion and made Bird a force to be reckoned with in the scooter world.
Its methods, applied in San Francisco after Bird took over Scoot, also transformed Scoot from a once-beloved local phenomenon with a loyal following into just another electric scooter company. “To even call it Scoot anymore is kind of a slap in the face. Whatever Scoot was, it’s gone,” said a source close to the company.
Last month’s dictum from the SFMTA is nowhere near the first time Bird has been banned from a city. It’s not even the first time it’s been kicked out of this city.
The Santa Monica-based start up was first exiled from San Francisco in 2018 after unloading hundreds of unpermitted scooters onto the streets. When it attempted to apply for an official permit later that year, Bird was denied, receiving poor marks from the SFMTA on equitable access, labor practices, and community outreach.
But the company, founded by ex-Uber and Lyft executive Travis VanderZanden, often finds ways around bans through techniques similar to those used by its rideshare ancestors.
First, it launched monthly scooter rentals, which allowed for people to pay a flat fee and get an electric scooter delivered to them for the month, even in cities where daily rentals were banned.
Then, Bird purchased Scoot in 2019, just in time for Scoot to be selected as one of four companies awarded permits to operate in San Francisco.
As Mission Local reported last week, recent “revelations” discovered by the SFMTA led to a ruling that Scoot (under Bird’s ownership) was in violation of its permit dating back to 2020. After multiple warnings that the city’s transit agency said went unheeded, Scoot was fined more than $100,000 and ordered to cease operations in San Francisco by July 1.
Prior to being purchased by Bird, Scoot earned a reputation for working with the SFMTA, for years, to get permitted and even create new permits when existing ones didn’t apply. It held block parties and organized loyal followers to help the company find a place within the city’s transit system. Bird went another route, and became known for suddenly dropping hundreds of permitless scooters overnight in cities around the country.
The demise of Scoot
The latest iteration of Bird’s removal from San Francisco is only one piece in its history of flouting the rules and controversial practices toward workers.
Six months after acquiring Scoot, Bird laid off “40 to 50” Scoot employees in December, 2019, and retaliated against workers who were trying to unionize with Teamsters Union, according to a source who worked closely with both companies.
While workers at scooter company Spin, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company, began the unionization process in 2019, Scoot’s workforce found its path blocked. Scoot employees learned that they had been transferred to a third-party staffing agency, a loophole used by companies to make unionizing more difficult, according to Tony DeLorio, president at Teamsters Local Union No. 665.
Among the group of Scoot employees he was working with, DeLorio said far more than the mandatory 50 percent goal had signed a union card indicating their interest. But right before they filed, Bird caught wind of the effort and began hiring through a third-party company, effectively disrupting the unionizing efforts: If employees technically work for different companies, they can’t unionize as one group.
“This is a big issue, not just in the scooter industry but in industries that we deal with across the country,” said Doug Bloch, political director of the Teamsters Northern California council. “The issue, of course, is that a company like Scoot [aka Bird] doesn’t have to take responsibility for those workers. They’re one step removed from any liability for those workers, including if the workers decide to organize.”
Then came the layoffs. Bird’s original contract with the SFMTA stipulated that in their acquisition of Scoot, they would maintain the same number of employees in San Francisco as before. Technically, through another loophole, Bird was able to cut employees and still maintain its numbers.
DeLorio said the layoffs were not connected to the union efforts, but that Bird’s hiring tactic was a form of retaliation against organizers and derailed their efforts.
“Everybody knew it was morally wrong, but they didn’t really break a rule under the permit,” DeLorio said. Today, DeLorio says, the permits include a clause preventing this third-party hiring practice. Spin and Lime (in which Uber is a major investor) have been permitted to operate for the next year, and DeLorio plans to help workers at Lime organize with the union.
Bird did not provide a comment for this story. After the SFMTA in June announced that Scoot would not receive a permit for the coming fiscal year, a Bird spokesperson told Mission Local that the company was “cooperating fully with the SFMTA to swiftly resolve the procedural mishaps that occurred.”
But Bird’s issues seem to be deeper than just “procedural mishaps,” and they appear to be widespread.
Out at home
Santa Monica, where Bird first launched with a similar overnight scooter blitz in September, 2017, is kicking Bird out of its own hometown. Bird appealed the move and threatened litigation in May 2021, but the Santa Monica city council rejected the appeal on June 30, approving four other scooter companies to operate.
Santa Monica had previously sued Bird for more than $300,000, citing licensing issues and safety concerns. Bird has not confirmed whether it will pursue any legal recourse.
Salt Lake City also recently passed an ordinance which banned Bird scooters on July 1, while permitting rival companies Lime and Spin. Bird submitted an appeal on May 31, claiming the permitting process was unfair. Other cities like Starkville, Mississippi, and Zaragoza, Spain, have also moved to blacklist Bird.
In addition to the various infractions, Bird also has a history of exploiting its franchisees, “fleet managers” who pay thousands for their own fleet of scooters which they maintain — except they never technically own the scooters, and owe Bird fees when they are inevitably damaged.
This mode of operation is, not coincidentally, very similar to that of Uber and Lyft, both of which are known for taking advantage of gig-worker drivers and cutting corners wherever possible.
In spite of all the drama, Bird continues rolling out service in new cities every day, now with operations in more than 100 cities worldwide, a far larger scale than Scoot ever reached on its own.
San Francisco commuters, already suffering from an eviscerated public transit system, will have to get from here to there without Bird.
But Bird has bigger plans in the works. And if and when it goes public this fall, it will be up to the market to eventually decide its fate.
Update: The story has been updated to reflect confirmation from Salt Lake City Purchasing and Contracts Management Division that as of July 1, Bird no longer operates in the city. –July 8, 11 a.m.