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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

Updated 38 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

DOJ: Capitol rioter threatened to "assassinate" Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Supporters of former President Trump storm the U.S. Captiol on Jan. 6. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A Texas man who has been charged with storming the U.S. Capitol in the deadly Jan. 6 siege posted death threats against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Department of Justice said.

The big picture: Garret Miller faces five charges in connection to the riot by supporters of former President Trump, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and making threats. According to court documents, Miller posted violent threats online the day of the siege, including tweeting “Assassinate AOC.”

Schumer calls for IG probe into alleged plan by Trump, DOJ lawyer to oust acting AG

Jeffrey Clark speaks next to Deputy US Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at a news conference in October. Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate an alleged plan by former President Trump and a DOJ lawyer to remove the acting attorney general and replace him with someone more willing to investigate unfounded claims of election fraud.

Driving the news: The New York Times first reported Friday that the lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, allegedly devised "ways to cast doubt on the election results and to bolster Mr. Trump’s continuing legal battles and the pressure on Georgia politicians. Because Mr. [Jeffrey] Rosen had refused the president’s entreaties to carry out those plans, Mr. Trump was about to decide whether to fire Mr. Rosen and replace him with Mr. Clark."