I woke up one recent Friday to a social media invasion. Every other post involved intriguing city critters only seen in other regions that had suddenly migrated to Bakersfield. How long they would stay, no one seemed to know.
But the uncertainty about why they came and how long they would remain didn’t stop many from hitching a ride, even on their inaugural day.
Online, the mysterious, dockless electric scooters had taken over all of my channels. In person, while on my way to work downtown, the Birds appeared to quite literally swarm the streets in Hitchcock-like fashion.
Local resident Sandy Woo-Cater posted about meeting a friend for lunch. Sandy’s lunchmate had embarked on her first flight. She wasn’t boarding a plane but was in Eastchester, riding a Bird.
Throughout the day, there were posts of residents zipping past on the newest transportation mode to hit our streets. Riders were mysteriously blurry against backdrops of familiar sites downtown. As the day wore on, the postings increased. There were more lunch and dinner dates by scooter, friends joining together for meetings on Birds. Some posted in front of their favorite spots.
Bakersfield doesn’t often identify as an early adopter, but when given the chance, we should embrace the title. Residents’ quick acceptance of this new technology gave me excitement and hope.
The hashtag “#birdbakersfield” hasn’t quite taken off yet, but there was one public post using the tag as a caption for photos of a few coworker friends meeting for lunch at Mexicali before heading to a meeting. I anticipate more posts will be added soon.
Despite the quick embrace, there were naysayers. Some argued the scooters would make us lazy (“Ride a bike!” one account posted), but the negativity seemed to quiet down since the initial drop.
No doubt, there are regulatory, liability and safety issues to sort out. Electric scooters cannot be driven on the sidewalk but must stay in the bike lane. Riders should follow all traffic regulations and always wear a helmet. The scooters travel up to 15 miles per hour, a jaunty pace for such a compact machine.
A Santa Monica-based startup, Bird Ride Inc., is the company that brought the first electric scooters to Bakersfield. Bird requires riders to download a mobile application, have a valid driver’s license and be at least 18 years old to ride the scooters.
Cities throughout California, including West Hollywood, El Segundo, Ventura and Beverly Hills, have moved to ban the Birds. The Beverly Hills City Council called for a “zero-tolerance” policy during their temporary ban to explore the issue, citing a “concern for public safety and a lack of any advanced planning and outreach by the motorized scooter companies.”
From the start, our own city has shown a willingness to engage. This is true even though officials were as surprised as residents by the sudden landing of the Birds.
“I think they’re awesome,” explained Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales. “They are definitely good for downtown. We have a lot of great restaurants, cafes and other venues spread out around central Bakersfield. The Bird makes it easier for people to get from place to place.”
Forest Barnes, a transportation planner for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), has researched the issue extensively. He provided suggestions to the Bakersfield City Council on regulating this microbility movement in our city. The research by Barnes looks at San Francisco and other cities’ experience with micromobility systems to make recommendations on improved regulation. His research will include a “Micromobility Toolkit” of regulations cities may implement, given their local values and goals. It will not be complete until May 2019.
Electric scooters like Bird, an alternative transportation method, are better for the environment than gas-guzzling cars. Bird scooters will not replace cars, but in an auto-centric place like Bakersfield, scooters could help reduce short car trips and may free up parking in denser areas where it is limited, such as downtown.
I view the scooters’ arrival as both validation of our progress and a mechanism to help accelerate efforts to revitalize our city center. Seeing more people out on the streets whizzing around on scooters and moving about outside of cars adds vitality. I especially loved witnessing riders at night in downtown alleys, the bright colored lights under the Birds illuminating and engaging parts of the city that are oft-ignored by cars.
Frankly, these delightful scooters could improve our quality of life. It’s an easy way to channel our childlike tendencies, akin to hopping on a bicycle. For quick trips, it’s more fun and efficient to hop on a scooter or bike and park it right outside your destination than to drive a short distance and spend more time circling the block to look for a parking spot.
Thankfully, it appears that the Birds’ migration will be permanent. Witnessing our city’s welcoming nature applied to the scooters has filled me with even more pride for this place.