by Daniel Uncapher
Cover image (The Atlantic/Getty): “Because of overcapacity at launch, over 10,000 bike-share service bicycles were abandoned at a bicycle graveyard on January 13, 2018 in Xiamen, Fujian, China.”
All other photos by author, unless otherwise noted.
Revelations in Personal Mobility at the Santa Monica Pier
I came to California in November 2017 to visit my partner’s family, where I laid my eyes on the Pacific for the first time at the Santa Monica Pier. It was to be a short walk. My back, leg, and ankle were broken in a car accident, so I can only walk for about twenty minutes before my body starts to give out on me. These limitations don’t improve as I get older. I used to explore cities on foot all day—as an adult I can only go a few minutes. Until I saw a Bird electric scooter sitting in the middle of the sidewalk.
I tried it and fell in love. I zipped all over Santa Monica. I zipped around San Diego, and then I zipped around Long Beach. It wasn’t just fun, it was transformative: the sprawling cities of Southern California became accessible in a new way, the once-prohibitively horizontal landscape almost physically reconfigured before me. Which is exactly what the world needs, not just for the differently-abled like myself, but for every urbanized citizen interested in surviving capitalism-driven climate change. Radical solutions to the high carbon and human costs of transport are an essential part of a broader action strategy, of sustainable ideas that rethink how people move through and interact with their environment. But there are deep costs to these scooters, both environmental and social, far exceeding the $1 + $0.15 per minute that they typically charge. To create the fastest-growing company ever, Silicon Valley acted on its worst impulses, compromising the philosophical and legal frameworks that define public spaces and defiling the environment with endless waves of electronic waste.
And it’s easier to deny that the scooters are fun than it is to deny that they’re dangerous, and in almost all use cases—on sidewalks, no helmets—certainly illegal. They go too fast in geographies without the infrastructure to handle them. There have been thousands of injuries and multiple deaths. There are the unpleasant communal consequences of regular use (full sidewalks, crowded alleys, blocked doorways), and consequences of public agency: scooters on fire, stuck in trees, covered in feces. There’s something insidious at work, and it’s not the scooter itself, or the communities they’re imposed upon. The problem is the logic of late capitalism that dominates the distribution and imposed disposability of this new technology, the control system vying to redefine public space to its own ecologically disastrous advantage.
Destroying the mechanical representatives of this logic is one way to voice displeasure. A more productive, subversive, and ecologically responsible way, however, is to buy a $25 plug-and-play kit from eBay and reprogram a Bird for oneself, simultaneously reclaiming the intrusion on their public space and saving one more scooter from the landfill.
“The places where there are no laws,” said Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden, “that’s where we go in.”
Capitalism isn’t scared of playing dirty. How can communities fight back?
Economizing E-Waste in the Age of Extinction
Dockless bikesharing came into the world, bubbled over and burst in the three years before the first Bird hit Santa Monica. The majority of companies—most of them Chinese—shut down that summer. Bikesharing was never profitable in the first place, but investors speculated that the companies would either harvest user data to sell or, if that failed, they’d at least leverage the $45 user deposits into high-yield capital. They were both impossible rationalizations, and dockless bikesharing collapsed. Photos of the ensuing bicycle graveyards went viral.
Meanwhile, VanderZanden, after being forced out of Lyft following a failed coup and voluntarily retiring from Uber to “spend more time with his family,” was at home shopping on Alibaba for cheap battery-powered scooters. He eventually found the Xiaomi M365—available right now on Amazon for $499—which, though never designed for public transportation, looked to VanderZanden “like Steve Jobs himself had designed it.” VanderZanden hacked each scooter with a Particle Electron microcontroller and a generic GPS board and dropped ten of them on the streets of Santa Monica overnight. He messaged the mayor on LinkedIn with a warning: “We have $3 million in venture funding to focus on the traffic and parking problem in Santa Monica and Venice. I’d love to get together.”
The mayor shot him down. “If your company is the one deploying electric scooters in the public right of way, my understanding is that there are serious legal issues with doing so.” Undeterred by the mayor and emboldened the scooters’ immediate on-the-ground adoption, VanderZanden dropped 240 more scooters across the city by the end of September. They filled sidewalks, wove across traffic, and ended up buried in the sand. He kept going. Pretty soon, Bird, now valued at over $2 billion, had placed thousands of scooters in over 120 cities, spawning dozens of competitors and a new industry shift towards “micromobility.”
Bird’s strategy is always the same. Jump in, dump the scooters without warning, and then fight a two-front war: convincing the public to accept the intrusion into their public space and become consumers, and convincing the government of the long-term viability (notwithstanding the immediate legality) of privatized ridesharing, especially amidst an infrastructure that was clearly not designed for it.
For the most part, the strategy seems to be working. In 2018, having entered 43 of 65 cities without permission, Bird had weathered half a million dollars in fines and court fees, hundreds of impounded scooters, and possible class-action lawsuits—and raised another $300 million. And they’re not the only ones raising money. Lime, formerly LimeBike, partnered with Segway to produce scooters of its own, shuttering its dockless bikesharing program in many markets (including South Bend, where Mayor Pete had touted it only a year earlier at the State of the City address). A $400 million cash infusion in January made them a $2 billion company, too.
What happened to all of the bicycles that Lime bought and deployed less than a year before switching to scooters? What will happen to the scooters once the next thing comes out? We’ve already seen the ecological damage that iterative improvements can do. The Xiaomi M365 is a great scooter that was never designed for the ritual abuse to which Bird subjects it. They designed a new scooter, called the “Bird Zero,” to phase out the army of Xiaomi scooters, which will go to landfills.
Birds on the street have shorter lifespans than factory-farmed chickens, which means that any given scooter will probably be dead before the new generation can even make it irrelevant.
Razor, the company that made scooters similarly famous overnight in 2000 (and coined the term “micromobility”), jumped into the game with its own hardware, then almost immediately replaced its fleet with a new twist: a hybrid bicycle-scooter, with a seat and larger tires, that costs twice as much to operate. Where did Razor’s original armada of scooters go? According to Skip, the company that markets themselves as the only responsible exception to the rule, the scooters will go to landfills.
Even more shocking is that the guaranteed generational waste of iterative improvements is made almost moot by the utter disposability imposed on the individual scooters by the demands of return. Lifespan estimates vary according to which company you ask and when, but it’s clear that few scooters last more than four months, and most of them seem to last less than a month, especially under conditions in which the scooters were never meant to operate—in the cold, the damp, on inclines, and under heavy use.
Birds on the street have shorter lifespans than factory-farmed chickens, which means that any given scooter will probably be dead before the new generation can even make it irrelevant. On a per-unit basis, most of these scooters, especially outside of Southern California, are extremely unprofitable. Trying to scale to take over the whole world should just bankrupt Bird faster, but the twisted user-acquisition economics of venture capitalism, in the form of multiple hundred-million-dollar-plus cash infusions a year, make it both worthwhile and necessary to cycle through scooters as quickly as they can be destroyed.
Not all destruction is due to the cyclical nature of the business. Some of it, as many viral images have depicted, is the result of direct action taken by communities against the scooter invasion, the kind of personal expression of community agency that, when tied to destruction of private property, capitalists refer to as vandalism. The Internet seems to be divided on the issue. People on one side blame the companies for their exploitative approach to their communities, while others blame the communities: “this is why we can’t have nice things.” But scooter companies aren’t “nice things.” They’re a novel and audacious attempt to subvert the very idea of public space, to capture it in the interests of private value, and if a scuffle ensues in the attempted takeover, there’s no one to blame but Silicon Valley.
Capitalism vs. Community in the Battle for the Commons
Despite the ecological and financial costs of their disruption, the scooter companies can keep outspending reality for the foreseeable future.
Scooter companies brush off the bulk of vandalism as a marginal concern, and market-based reporting generally overlooks it as well. But in doing so, they perform an intellectual sleight-of-hand trick that compromises—steals, really—our public spaces. They are attempting a coup. “There are some similarities between these challenges [vandalism] for dockless micromobility devices and Hardin’s famous Tragedy of the Commons,” reads one investor report; “e-scooters and e-bikes are the ‘resource’ that is ‘commonly held,’ but only in the sense that they are unsecured and can’t be taken from anyone.”
Sleight-of-hand is too charming a term for the layers of corrupted theory nested in this particular statement. Let’s unpack it.
First, what is the Commons, anyways? Maybe, as the Internet says, it’s best understood as the total cultural and natural resources available to all members of a community. Maybe it’s all the natural resources held in common, not owned privately. Maybe it’s just a system of informal norms that a community uses to regulate itself. Metaphorically, it’s the town green where every citizen’s sheep can graze. What the Commons is emphatically not, and never has been, is a privately-held technology available only to those with the right tools and resources. If there’s an invader of the Commons here, it’s clearly the scooters. As Dr. S.A. Applin puts it for VICE, the scooter companies “created a problem that has not been seen before: voluntary, intentional, migrating, mobile, functional litter.” Bird is not the Commons. Bird is the disrupter.
Second, what exactly is the so-called Tragedy of the Commons? In 1968, a eugenicist named Garrett Hardin argued, without a shred of evidence, that community resources couldn’t exist, as they inevitably lead to their own destruction. He invented a fictional pasture in England where the freedom of grazing sheep “brings ruin to all.” Communal self-regulation is impossible. Yet within a few years, academics had started debunking the theory, finding actual examples, including literal sheep pastures in Switzerland, that demonstrate that a Commons can indeed survive without intrusion. A review in the 1980s found a history not of tragedy at all, but triumph: “for hundreds of years—and perhaps thousands, as written records do not exist to prove the longer era—land was successfully managed by communities.”
Today’s capitalists have co-opted dead theory and turned it against the community, weaponizing their own interests against themselves. They’re either intellectually dishonest or intellectually incapable; in either case, they’ve proven that they’re not the right people to trust with the future. The only tragedy in this case is the scooter companies’ disruption of public space, which, as Applin explains, reliably leads to disruption: “For those disruptive companies to expect their customers to then follow rules, is naïve at best.”
Applin continues: “When we ‘take agency,’ we are enacting choice from whatever options are available to us at a certain point in time and space. As the point in time and space changes, or as we make other choices, our options change, and the type of agency we can take, changes as well.”
We can’t let Bird, Lime, and other companies justify profit-seeking disruption by misappropriating spurious philosophy. But what alternatives do we have when the capitalists are operating however they please? When it comes to the logistics of disruption, VanderZanden admits, “we felt we were in a grey area.” His extralegal maneuvering has continued to pay off: Bird secured another $300 million in February. Despite the ecological and financial costs of their disruption, the scooter companies can keep outspending reality for the foreseeable future.
How can the members of the communities affected by the attempted coup of the Commons reclaim their own space from Silicon Valley? Does it take extralegal means to defeat extralegal machinations? What does “agency” look like in the face of a seemingly infinite supply of venture capital? Hackers and tech bloggers like Jamie Zawinski have come up with one potential solution, infinitely more productive than simple destruction: “Maybe you can re-purpose this parasitic, Commons-destroying litter into something fun,” he advises.
Maybe you can free a bird.
Hack That Scooter! Subverting the Perverted Logic of Silicon Valley
“Move fast and break things.”
“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
“We felt we were in a grey area.”
The scooter companies are operating in bad faith. They’ve violated the social contract from the beginning, illegally dumping their e-waste across the country and claiming space for themselves that even humans aren’t afforded. It’s illegal to occupy a sidewalk for too long as a human—vagrancy, loitering, and littering laws take care of that. What gives VanderZanden’s trash more right to a sidewalk corner than a homeless person?
The answer is controlled movement of capital. The only way to take capital back under control is to cut off the flow of money. If you can preserve some of the theoretical utility of their work while doing so, even better. If, with all of that in mind, someone were to hack the brain of a Bird and repurpose it permanently for their own use, they wouldn’t be the first person to do so.
User humanbeing21 posted “HOW TO HOTWIRE A BIRD SCOOTER” on the ScooterTalk forums last fall, explaining how to hack a first-generation Bird with a $30 “plug-and-play” conversion kit from China and a set of specialty screwdrivers. Popular lifestyle blog Boing Boing ran the story, which went viral—prompting Bird to send a takedown notice, but later apologizing. The EFF, which represents Boing Boing, wrote that the article’s author, Cory Doctorow, could have written a call to action for “Bird scooters to be destroyed or stolen; instead he simply reported that they could lawfully be acquired at auction and lawfully modified to function as personal scooters.”
With that in mind, here’s a call to action for Bird scooters to be destroyed or stolen.
First, acquire one. If you’d rather not grab one off the street, try your local police auction—cities have impounded thousands of Birds, early casualties of VanderZanden’s war on the Commons. You’ll need a new “brain,” the plug-and-play circuit boards for the M365 that are available on eBay for as low as $25 (although the ScooterTalk forums recommend an OEM board straight from Xiaomi). With the right size Torx screwdriver, you should be able to gut the Bird within a couple of minutes, swap out the circuit boards, and then pair it with the Xiaomi Mi Home app on your phone to control it. Estimated time investment: one to two hours.
Once you’ve gotten this far, you’ll find some options that weren’t available to you before, like cruise control and a low-power “eco mode,” which appears to be what they’re running in on default. You can even adjust the regenerative braking. But the most important thing to do with your new Bird is to keep it alive. Circumvent the infinite trash cycle by keeping the Bird going for longer than the other members of the corporate-owned flock—anything past four weeks is beating the average. When it does die, salvage the parts that you can, then recycle it.
Newer “Bird Zero” scooters are harder to hack, but now that the idea has gone viral, it might not be long until the next generation of e-waste has also been compromised. Make them free, make them sustainable, and make them last. Until Silicon Valley starts to respect the Commons, or until the government steps in to provide “micromobility” services itself (as it should be already), counter-disruptive disruption is a morally viable act of community agency. And when it comes to confronting capitalism, the community needs to use every trick in the book.
“Think Harder, Homer:” Bringing Micromobility Back to the Masses
I still love electric scooters. They’re incredibly fun, and they’ve revolutionized personal mobility for me in ways I’d long ago given up on. A lot of people like them, no matter how obnoxious they are. A large study commissioned by Portland, Oregon showed that, of a sample of 800,000 miles covered in four months, one-third of residents and half of visitors did so in lieu of an automobile. It makes sense: 40% of trips are less than two miles. What do we need all those cars for?
But the perverse logic of landfill capitalism, powered by VCs and Amazon Web Services, has, in offering its own footprint, already threatened the path forward. Whatever “last-mile” transportation looks like in the new future—whether elected by the people or imposed by the climate—there’s no reason to turn it over so fast to the “disruptors.” Docked bikes, dockless bikes, dockless scooters, bigger dockless scooters, dockless hybrid scooter-bikes, and now, in some cities, a return to docked bikes—each new wave of disruption carries an ecological cost, both in the production and disposal of technology. There’s no one around to pay the price except for, of course, the community. The community, it should be said, pays twice.
Silicon Valley doesn’t have the imagination, theoretical backing, or integrity to power a truly restorative, forward-moving vision of the future. In a country where the presence of human bodies in public spaces is still dictated by vagrancy, loitering, and littering laws, VanderZanden and his peers believe they have the right to pile garbage on our sidewalks overnight. That they can, in fact, do whatever it takes to make money.
“No one in this business that I know of is doing it to make an impact on carbon emissions, or improve the environment,” says Horace Dediu, founder of the Micromobility Summit, as reported in Inc. magazine. “Everyone is doing it because there’s a shitload of money in e-scooters.”
Making more money is not going to get us out of the ongoing climate catastrophe. Subsidizing e-waste in the race to dominate “micromobility” is not the answer. The Anthropocene is loudly alerting us that sustainability is of deadly importance, and capitalism is, by definition, unsustainable. Paradigms of infinite growth are no longer viable. They do not even deserve to be entertained. The Commons doesn’t belong to the capitalists. It’s not theirs to abuse, theirs to claim as their own in the name of private property. But if the Commons is going to continue to exist in the immediate future, a more radical defense of its values is needed, both to protect it from VC funding and from the oncoming ravages of climate change. If we can’t win this little war, how will we ever win the big one?
To save the Commons, we must first take it back. ♦
Daniel Uncapher is a Sparks Fellow at Notre Dame, where he received his MFA, and an incoming Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. A disabled bisexual from North Mississippi, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, The Carolina Quarterly, Penn Review, and others. View his website here.