The scooters arrived with little warning — no hype, no preview, no city approval. When day broke on the weekend, they were just there.
Several dozen of them, actually, scattered across the Charleston peninsula and West Ashley. They were parked around The Citadel, they were parked on sidewalks on the Westside, and they were parked around Avondale.
And before long, they were zipping around, whipping through the streets at 15 mph.
The arrival of Bird scooters in the Lowcountry came quickly, not six months after they first emerged in San Francisco. But when they showed up Saturday, Charleston became only the latest city to face a brand-new transportation question: Should this be legal?
Charleston decided it wasn't. The city sent a cease-and-desist letter to Santa Monica, Calif.-based Bird on Monday, threatening to impound scooters and fine the company.
Charleston officials accused Bird of launching its service after city staff told them it was illegal, apparently when the company applied for a business license. In addition, the letter said, it never did get that license.
"Over the weekend, City of Charleston police officers observed Bird scooters that were left unattended haphazardly on the city's sidewalks creating trip hazards and eye sores," city attorney Steve Ruemelin wrote in the shutdown notice.
The city cited ordinances that make it illegal to give rides on low-speed vehicles and outlaw the use of "unregulated" vehicles downtown. Aside from regulated vehicles like cars, only bikes, carriages, rickshaws and skateboards are allowed. Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis says no scooters were impounded, and no riders were ticketed.
So by Monday morning, the scooters had disappeared from Bird’s app as fast as they’d arrived. The company said it pulled its scooters off the streets voluntarily "after testing a pilot program," and it said it would try to find a legal path forward for the service.
Bird and companies like it have faced legal trouble elsewhere. Other cities have bristled at riders parking scooters wherever they like, gumming up sidewalks. Cities like San Francisco and Denver have put the brakes on scooter systems because of the parking issue.
Bird, which has collected investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has followed a legal strategy akin to the ride-hailing service Uber’s: Seek forgiveness, not permission.
When Uber rolled into Charleston in 2014, it also came without warning. Rather than shut down, it forced the issue of how South Carolina would regulate a pseudo-taxi service, and it won the Legislature’s blessing the next year.
In a statement announcing its arrival in Charleston, Bird said it was open to working with city officials. The company says it’s open to paying a $1-a-day tax for each scooter it operates, and it asks riders to stay on the road, not the sidewalk.
That may well be key, because Bird scooters can move relatively fast — zippy enough to circle Hampton Park in about four minutes. Their top speed of 15 mph isn’t breaking any speed limits, and it might still be passed by a cyclist. But next to a pedestrian, it’s not slow, either.
Bird says the point of the scooters is to make it easier to travel short distances without a car. It says they’re geared toward trips that are "too long to walk, but too short to drive."
During its brief Charleston debut, Bird charged users a $1 fee and $9 an hour, or 15 cents a minute, on top of that.
Charleston-based Gotcha Group, which runs bike-share systems and now offers scooter rentals, says it likewise sees the potential in scooters. But it doesn’t have any immediate plans to roll them out in Charleston, where it thinks rapid growth and deep history could make them unpopular.
"For cities like ours it’s even more important that transportation solutions are well thought out, strategically executed, and are based on ongoing dialogue with the community and the city," Gotcha CEO Sean Flood said in a statement.
By the end of Monday, Bird said it would try to find one. The company says it will talk with the city about developing rules that would legalize scooter rentals.