At first, it seemed as though nothing could go wrong. Dockless shared electric scooters began showing up on the streets of the world’s cities in 2017, and the vanguard — techies, baristas, twentysomething daredevils — hopped on and rode, confident that they were tilting against two looming threats, urban congestion and climate change. The future of scootering seemed so bright that the valuation of the largest manufacturer, Bird, went from $300 million in March, 2018, to $2 billion three months later, an astronomical leap, even by Silicon Valley standards.
But Bird’s earliest scooters were so flimsy that, in one 2018 study, their average life span on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, was just 28.8 days. (Bird disputes the study’s findings pointing to an investor presentation from 2022 claiming that the “half-life” of its earliest scooters was three to four months.) Reports of scooter battery fires and brake failures across scooter brands began hitting the news. In August 2018, Bird’s CEO, Travis VanderZanden, made a highly unusual move, selling off tens of millions of dollars worth of his company’s stock.