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February 7, 2023

Bird Bikes and Scooters Suspended in Healdsburg and Windsor

City’s bike sharing program on hold as staffing issues clip Bird’s wings

The City of Healdsburg can’t seem to keep its skinny wheels on the road. When former bike rental contractor Zagster went bankrupt during the pandemic, it left this popular wine country destination without tourist-friendly bike rentals. So with a $290,000 contract from the City of Healdsburg, Bird Global took up the challenge and delivered close to 100 new blue electric bikes to several stations around town. That was in October, about four months ago. 

According to “heat map” usage charts so far, it looks like a lot of the rides are either starting or ending in the neighborhoods about as much as downtown. Councilmember David Hagele (now vice mayor) posted the images on Facebook on Dec. 15, along with a summary usage chart of Bird Bike users from early November to mid-December. That chart showed modest usage of the service at best. There were only three days with double-digit ridership, with a high of 15 rides on Nov. 23, and several days with no riders at all. 

It should certainly be pointed out that anyone can rent bikes at several other places in town, including Spoke Folk Cyclery on Center Street and Wine Country Bikes at Old Roma Station. But the appeal of a bike-sharing service to more casual visitors convinced the City Council on Sept. 19, 2022 that funding the program was in keeping with its sustainability goals of reducing greenhouse gasses emissions, to have the stylish bikes available for short-term rental.

While the usage figures and charts suggest unexpected results, public works director Larry Zimmer was unperturbed. “There were no expectations, since it is a new program, and the weather has been far from bike friendly since we launched,” he told the Tribune this week.

Still, so far at least, the “micromobility” bike service hasn’t been as smooth a ride as hoped. Billing problems with the app emerged almost from the start, sometimes making it easier to check out a bike than to return it. The distinctive blue bikes were often found in random locations around town, sometimes for days at a time, often not charged up enough for a new customer to take over.

The service seemed to grind to a standstill with the New Year. Then on Jan. 12, the city announced in a Facebook post, “Bird will be picking up and storing all bikes until the bikes are ready to go back into service. We’ll update you again once they’re back in action!”

Zimmer said the problem is a staffing issue on the Bird side of the equation. “Prior to the holidays, the bike manager for Bird quit without notice. They started onboarding a new manager, but that person backed out. They are trying to find someone ASAP.” 

A fleet manager, as Bird Bikes calls the position, is responsible for collecting the bikes that users distribute around the city, relocating them and replacing their spent battery with a freshly recharged one, garaging them and recharging them for another customer’s reuse. Zimmer added that the confusion and hiccups, as reported to the city by “multiple callers,” led him to ask Bird to remove the bikes “until they are again operational.”

According to Healdsburg Mayor Ariel Kelley, a strong supporter of this and similar “last mile” solutions, it’s not only Healdsburg that is affected. “The same staff member vacancy is also impacting the Bird scooter programs in both Windsor and Santa Rosa. Thus it is an issue impacting our region that Bird claims to have plans to resolve,” she told the Tribune.

Rhea Borja of Windsor’s town manager’s office confirmed that their Bird program is on hold until a local fleet manager can be hired.

Kelley and Zimmer both said that the city is not paying Bird while the service is not available. Kelley pointed out that most of the funds for the program come from a 2021 federal “Quick Strike” grant of $250,000, with a relatively modest contribution from the city. 

Inquiries to Bird drew a response from Campbell Millum, senior director of global communications. “We temporarily paused our operations in the city as we bring on a new local partner to lead on-the-ground logistics. We’re confident we’ll find the right fit for the market very soon and Bird Bikes will be back on the roads,” said Millum.

An added note states they are accepting applications for the “on-the-ground logistics partner,” or fleet manager, at www.bird.co/us-fm. 

“The bike program was successful when the bikes were out, and we were thrilled by the reaction, which is why we’re eager to get them back on the road as soon as the local partner is on board,” added Millum.

Last year was a difficult one for Bird, with an unfriendly audit from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that found overstated revenues. That was a factor in the resignation of its founding CEO, Travis VanderZanden, in September—about a month before those blue Bird Bikes first appeared on the streets of Healdsburg.  

While Bird’s well-documented financial struggles have resulted in employee cutbacks and the withdrawal of service from multiple cities, it’s unclear if they are also factors in the local staffing shortage. Kelley for one does not think so. “I do not believe the lack of staff locally is related to the issues you are referencing at a national level,”she said.

Instead, the mayor reiterated her support of the bike-sharing program. “I have received numerous emails and texts from grateful residents who have used the e-bikes and enjoy the speed and accessibility to get around town,” said Kelley. “I hope as the weather improves, more residents will give them a spin!” 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Well, yeah, there does seem top be some issues, and a pretty high price tag…..
    I do think that it could be done better, for less $, and probably make money or at least come close to even, with good management and commitment, and that does take leadership.

    Also, worth noting, beside the pandemic slow down, it IS winter, and an unusually rainy one so far this year, which slows down both locals and tourists, and keeps many hard boiled cyclists indoors, along with the casual riders

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  2. Ridiculous to spend $2900/bike for tourists. Who else rides these? and then they’re abandoned. This is another feel-good project that does nothing positive. How about plain old cruiser bikes: $200 each.

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