July 30, 2018
For that supremely obvious, bad-pun headline — you’re welcome.
When the dockless, electric rental scooters that go by the name Bird showed up in Minneapolis and St. Paul earlier this month, people kinda lost their minds. Some in a good way — it reminded me of the anticipation of Google+ or when Spyhouse opened its North Loop location right next door to Fast Horse — and some in a bad way. We saw a mountain of social media chatter and media coverage celebrating their arrival, offering some basic how-to advice, detailing the knee-jerk regulatory response (this is why we can’t have nice things!), and deep-diving into “everything” you “need” to know about the new rides.
Reading up on the latest craze is great, but I wanted to take a spin for myself to see what all the fuss was about.
I found myself with a little bit of a break around lunchtime last week, and at around 11:30, the Bird app showed an available scooter right outside the office. I headed outside to find — nothing. The scooter was not to be found, despite the app showing it right where I was standing.
No worries, I thought. I’ve got time, and it’s gorgeous outside. I took a stroll a couple of blocks away to where the app showed another scooter awaiting a rider. We’re in the North Loop, and the scooter density isn’t nearly the same as it is in the heart of downtown. I know this area to be a relatively low-traffic area, so I figured the odds were good it’d still be there when I arrived. And it was.
Despite having pre-loaded my credit card payment information into the app before leaving the office, I still couldn’t get started until I plugged in my driver’s license info and agreed to the terms and conditions. I’m not sure why I wasn’t prompted to do that earlier, from the comfort of my air conditioned office, instead of standing on the sidewalk. But hey, even though the driver’s license scanner didn’t work and I had to enter my info manually, I finally had a scooter in my sweaty hands, and I was ready to roll.
(Also, “bring your own helmet to stay safe while you ride,” the app says. Yeah. Got it. Lemme just pull this bike helmet out of my pocket. Silly lawyers.)
Minneapolis is an incredibly bike-friendly city, so cruising around on an electric scooter was a breeze. And it’s just plain fun. When you’re up on the scooter, you’re a few inches taller and several miles per hour faster. A battery-powered Usain Bolt, I was. The scooter handled bumps and minor obstacles with ease, and I immediately gained a Tony Stark-like sense of superiority over the conventionally foot-powered folk.
Once I arrived at my destination — Chipotle, of course — I was ready to end my ride and leave the scooter for the next hipster. (Speaking of which, did I mention I was wearing my Allbirds and had a Soylent drink for breakfast? Reinforcing all sorts of techy hipster stereotypes over here.) I was presented with an unexpected option: simply end the ride and release the scooter to leave it for the next person, or lock it so it’d be here waiting for me when I got back. I didn’t want to pay for 30 minutes of wait time while I ate so I ended the ride.
After lunch, I kinda regretted that decision. Even in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, where the concentration of scooters is highest, it was surprisingly difficult to find one available. The Bird app itself was a big part of the challenge.
Unless you get lucky and just stumble upon a Bird, the app’s map is the way to find an available scooter. In these early days, there’s presumably a limited quantity of scooters in Minneapolis, but more so, the maps seemed inaccurate and slow to update. More than once, the app’s map was way off with where it thought I was standing. This might be related to the giant buildings downtown messing with the GPS, but Google Maps didn’t seem to have the same problems. As I chased down an available ride, I was pointed to the wrong spot — off by about 50-100 feet each time, even across a busy a street — only to find the scooter being snapped up by another rider by the time I tracked it down. Other times, the scooter was in use (or otherwise lost) even though the map showed it being available.
This left me wandering around downtown Minneapolis, chasing after allegedly available scooters in the mid-day sun. Ultimately, an eight-minute scooter ride to and from lunch — plus about 30 minutes of waiting in line and eating at Chipotle — kept me away from the office for damn near an hour and a half. On this particular day, I had the flexibility to be patient seeking a scooter that didn’t want to be found, but that’s rarely the case.
All in all, my lunchtime scooter excursion was fun — and a lovely way to spend part of a perfect Minnesota summer afternoon. But Bird has a few kinks to smooth out before this is as slick an experience as it could be.