Make no mistake: If Uber didn’t exist, neither would the new crop of electric-scooter startups that are exploding across the US.
Startups such as Bird, Lime, and Jump have taken off with their concept of spicing up the city commute with rented electric scooters. Riders can simply find an electric scooter, use an app to “unlock” it, and then pay a small amount for each minute of use.
All owe a debt to Uber. The ride-hailing company pioneered the idea of on-demand transport powered by an app, and it was nothing short of a revolution. With that concept firmly embedded in commuters’ minds, the idea of dockless bicycles and hired electric scooters doesn’t seem quite so crazy.
As others have pointed out, there are other similarities between Uber and scooter-hire companies. The most obvious is investing huge amounts of capital to expand quickly and flood the market with product, be that private-hire vehicles or electric scooters.
And the Uber comparisons don’t end with the business model.
Emails obtained by Business Insider through a Freedom of Information request show how Bird is also copying Uber’s language in its communications with governments and regulators as it bids to crack new markets.
Those emails reveal not only how Bird is lobbying to allow electric scooters in the UK, where they are illegal, but also how Uber has influenced the way the company is selling itself to regulators and the government.
Here are five ways Bird is copying Uber:
One of the cleverest Silicon Valley tricks Uber pulled off was selling the narrative that its service wasn’t about providing cheap cabs but instead about killing the car.
The company has long billed itself as the alternative to unsustainable car ownership, a concept it also uses to combat accusations that its drivers increase city congestion and, by extension, pollution.
Bird’s European chief, Patrick Studener, echoed that language in an email to London’s transport regulator, Transport for London, in April about ways electric scooters could reduce car ownership.
“At Bird we are still very young but our mission is to get more cars off the road and help give cities back to the people who live in them,” he enthused. “We figured a good place to start might be the roughly 40% of all car rides that are less than 3km long and replacing them with electronic scooters.”
The natural corollary of boasting about reduced car ownership is that you can also boast that you help reduce CO2 emissions, city congestion, and pollution.
In January 2017, Uber told the UK government that its drivers were “unlikely to contribute meaningfully towards congestion,” because most passengers used its service in the evenings, when congestion is low anyway. It also argued that its shared ride service, UberPool, could cut congestion and that its service freed up parking spaces.
Bird’s Studener wrote in his April email that scooters reduce congestion on the roads and free up significant amounts of parking space.
He said that “reduces the CO2 that is pumped into our cities which although we can not see it does have a lasting effect on us and future generations.”
Bird avoided mentioning issues of oversupply. San Francisco cracked down on electric scooters because they were clogging up pavements.
When Uber was up before the UK government talking about whether it contributed to congestion, the company consistently argued that it was most popular in the suburbs.
It said it was solving the so-called last-mile problem, in which the final leg of a destination — such as getting home from a bus or a train station — is the most difficult and expensive.
“We found that one in four Uber journeys in London is to or from a tube or train station,” Uber’s UK policy chief, Andrew Byrne, said in 2017. “As well as using public transport services, people use it for the first and last mile of their journey, whether late at night or early in the morning.” Uber even argued that it should receive subsidies for complementing public transport.
Bird likewise argued that it solved the last-mile problem. “Our commitment is to launch Birds in locations where mobility is still an issue,” Richard Corbett, Bird’s UK head, wrote in a June message to Transport for London. “This includes areas of low income / property but also areas with an underserved transport infrastructure.”
Before Uber adopted a more conciliatory approach to regulators, the company would regularly criticize what it described as outdated laws that threatened to regulate its service.
Uber faces regulation as a transportation company rather than a tech company after a European ruling last year, and the company responded badly at the time. A spokesman said the ruling would “undermine the much-needed reform of outdated laws which prevent millions of Europeans from accessing a reliable ride at the tap of a button.”
Both Studener and Corbett from Bird adopted a similar tone in their emails on being told that electric scooters were illegal on UK streets and pavements. That’s per the 1835 Highway Act, which says people can’t use a “carriage” of any description on pavements, and newer legal standards requiring scooters to be registered as vehicles.
“The legislation that is in effect is 100+ years old,” Corbett said of the Highway Act, adding: “I cannot stand back and allow my home country to fall behind — especially when the benefit of our solution would be to reduce car usage.”
Elsewhere, Studener suggests that the law may need updating. “We fully appreciate that this might require reviewing the laws mentioned dating back as far back as 1835,” he said.
Uber, with its mountains of data about where people are picked up and dropped off, was until recently unwilling to help city planners design for changes in people’s habits by sharing its data. But it changed tack and began sharing data with cities at the beginning of 2017.
Bird only briefly mentions data sharing, but you can hear the echoes of Uber. Bird said it worked “closely” with cities to share information and even promised to share revenue to fund sustainability projects. “The more Birds are used instead of cars, the more projects are funded,” Studener wrote.