For the first time since Bird scooters appeared in Columbia, a company representative publicly met with city officials and community members. He assured people that changes have been and will be made to avoid accessibility issues, but he doesn’t know when all of those changes will happen.
Jeremy LaFaver, the representative, attended the Columbia Disabilities Commission meeting Thursday to address concerns brought up by the commission and other community members about the challenges scooters cause for members of the disabled community, especially wheelchair users.
“(Bird’s) main goal is to get people around,” LaFaver said at the meeting. “If their product or their service is a hinderance to getting people around, that’s a big problem.”
Bird, which has 500 scooters in Columbia, has multiple solutions to the problem, according to LaFaver. With a new update, everyone who rides a scooter or charges them overnight are required to take a picture of where they parked the scooter. Pedestrians can report when a scooter is in their way through a feature on the app or by emailing Bird, LaFaver said. Bird will then know who parked the scooter irresponsibly and can send the user a message to inform them of the violation. The company would take “additional corrective actions” for repeat offenders, LaFaver said.
The company has also discussed hiring 40 or 50 “Bird-watchers,” who will respond to reports of Birds that are in violation of the company’s policy minutes after a report is filed, LaFaver said. The Bird-watchers will also be on the lookout for riders who are on the sidewalk or not wearing helmets. LaFaver said that they are ready to start launching the Bird-watcher program in Columbia, but he is not sure when it will start.
“Bird doesn’t want them riding on the sidewalks,” LaFaver said. “So those watchers will be out there in those heavy-traveled areas to remind people, ‘Hey, man, ... thanks so much for using Bird, we really appreciate it. That’s not supposed to be on the sidewalk. Here’s how you get a free helmet, and here’s $5 for a free ride.’”
Commissioner Rene Powell voiced concerns about the speed of the scooters.
“It’s not just parking; they fly, and I’ve almost been hit,” she said.
LaFaver said the watchers will help solve this problem by reminding riders to stay off sidewalks. The scooters, which can go up to 15 miles per hour, have to be fast for people to feel comfortable riding them in the street alongside cars, he said. But LaFaver said an agreement the company has with every city that has their scooters will help mitigate the problem. Bird gives a dollar per scooter per day for investments in “walkability and infrastructure.” He said the city could use the money to pay for scooter or bike lanes to make riders feel safer.
“The more we can make it safe and feel safe for cyclists and scooter riders to be in the bike lane or on the right of the traffic lane, I think that’s going to be good,” LaFaver said. “We’re heading in a direction to get there. We’re not getting there fast enough.”
Birds have been the subject of controversy since their arrival in Columbia in August. Columbia City Council is working on a one-year agreement with Bird, according to previous Missourian reporting. At a city council meeting in September, council members shared concerns about scooters becoming obstacles for people with disabilities of left in the middle of the sidewalk.
Thursday’s meeting was the first time a Bird representative has openly talked with city officials. LaFaver plans to be at the city council meeting Monday, as well, he said.
“I am hopeful that they will pursue better tracking of where the scooters are parked so they become less of a problem for people on the side walks,” commissioner Ann Marie Gortmaker said in an interview after the meeting.
Supervising editor is Claire Mitzel.