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Illustration: Caresse Haaser / Axios

Electric scooter company Bird is beginning to look a lot like Uber, with an on-demand transportation service that is ubiquitous on San Francisco streets, a business model that gets ahead of local regulations, and a competitive streak that ruffles feathers.

Bottom line: This isn't a coincidence, as Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden is a veteran of both Uber and Lyft.

Bird quietly began operating last year in its hometown of Santa Monica, and has since expanded to such cities as San Francisco, Austin, and Washington, D.C.

The other Travis

VanderZanden tells Axios that his daughters quickly lost interest in the bikes he bought them for Christmas and went back to their scooters. It was an aha moment for him.

  • At Uber, he was responsible for keeping Uber’s driver acquisition machine running.
  • Before that, he was chief operating officer at Lyft, which he joined through its acquisition of his on-demand car wash startup, Cherry.
  • His move from Lyft to Uber was contentious, including a reported failed bid for the Lyft CEO role and a lawsuit that accused him of breaching confidentiality.
  • “It’s a bet on Travis,” explains a Bird investor who preferred his name not be used. “He knows the playbook… If anybody is going to build a big scooter business, it’s going to be this guy.” Bird already shares a few investors with Uber, and not by accident.
Past as predicate

Bird is operating in regulatory gray areas, just as Uber did in the early days of ride-hail:

  • Santa Monica filed criminal charges against Bird for operating without a permit. Bird settled in February, agreeing to pay a $300,000 penalty.
  • San Francisco gave Bird a business permit, but resident complaints about scooters clogging up sidewalks resulted in some scooters being impounded and a cease and desist order on Monday from the city attorney. A new permit system is now being created, which also would apply to Bird rivals like LimeBike and Spin.
  • Austin's city council is also working to get rules and permits in place.
  • Bird chief legal officer David Estrada, who previously led government relations at Lyft, says that the company welcomes regulations, but it hopes that cities carefully observe and assess how residents interact with the service instead of rushing to pass rules.
  • Still, the company is also trying to anticipate some problems. It recently announced its "Save Our Sidewalks" pledge, inviting competitors to join in picking up theirs scooters every night, moderate growth, and remit money to cities to support infrastructure. Spin described the pledge as "insincere," while LimeBike called it a "PR stunt," adding it's focused on working with city leaders instead.

Bottom line: Rolling out scooters in cities without specific regulations forced cities to accept the new category and create rules that legitimize it—but it's not helping Bird avoid a reputation of arrogance.

Lessons learned

VanderZanden acknowledges the playbook similarities to Uber, but also says there are key differences.

  • Safety: Bird makes helmets freely-available to customers.
  • Congestion: "The biggest difference [from ride-hailing] is that Bird is taking cars off the road," said VanderZanden.
  • Environment: E-scooters don't create carbon emissions.

To be sure, there are many caveats to those positive steps, particularly when one realizes that Bird supports legislation that would remove the requirement that adult e-scooter riders wear helmets (thus putting it in line with current e-bike rules).

But maybe that's the point: VanderZanden recognizes that early Uber missed out on a lot of low-hanging PR fruit and the defenders that come with it. Be aggressive, but also be a savvy messenger.

Go deeper

Biden says he'll make Supreme Court pick by end of February

President Biden speaks on the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden on Thursday said he will announce the nominee for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's replacement by the end of February.

Driving the news: Biden also affirmed that he will nominate a Black woman to replace Breyer, saying "it's long overdue."

Stephen Breyer formally announces retirement from Supreme Court

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Justice Stephen Breyer on Thursday sent a letter to President Biden formally announcing his retirement from the Supreme Court.

State of play: Breyer said his retirement will take effect when the court "rises for the summer recess (typically late June or early July) assuming that by then my successor has been nominated and confirmed."

COVID created an epic U.S. trade gap

Chart: Axios Visuals. Data: Census Bureau/Bureau of Economic Analysis

The details of the blockbuster fourth quarter GDP report released Thursday morning tell a vivid story of how the underpinnings of the world economy have been reshaped by the pandemic.

One example: In the arithmetic around U.S. economic output, trade acted as a more severe drag last year than it has in a generation.