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BIRDs Invade Harrisonburg -- And No, It's Not a Hitchcock Movie

If you’ve spent any time in downtown Harrisonburg recently, you’ve almost certainly noticed a sudden influx of black and white scooters all over the sidewalks.  JMU students seem to love them, but the scooter invasion is not without controversy, and risk.  WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

It’s late afternoon in front of a downtown Harrisonburg burger joint, and James Madison University student Jake Abruzzo is about to ride off on a Bird scooter.

JAKE ABRUZZO: Uphill they struggle sometimes, but most of the time they’re pretty fast, yeah.

Bird Rides, Inc. is a California-based company that has placed its electric scooters on university campuses and on the streets in about 80 cities in 21 states and eight other countries, according to its website.

ABRUZZO: How it works is, there’s an app, and you can go on the app and it tells you where they are, and you find one, you scan it, it’ll tell you what its battery percentage is at, and then you can say “Unlock.” It’s $1 to rent it initially, and then I think it’s like 10 or 20 cents for every minute after that. A lot of the times it’s cheaper than an Uber.

You just leave them, when you’re finished, preferably by a bike rack, and not in a public pathway.

ABRUZZO: There’s a throttle for go and then a brake on the handlebars, and a foot brake as well.

Like all of other scooter riders I see, Abruzzo is not wearing a helmet. He puts in his earbuds to listen to a Spotify playlist and heads south on the northbound one-way Main Street.

ABRUZZO: And you have to put up the kickstand.

These electric scooters – from Bird or one of its competitors – are not always welcome in cities. Richmond, for example, began impounding scooters; but in September the mayor submitted a permitting proposal to the City Council that would allow them.

In Charlottesville earlier this month, the City Council approved a regulatory pilot program for them, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

[Washington Post Commentary: E-Scooters are Like Q-Tips]

And Harrisonburg has kept an open mind, according to assistant city attorney Wesley Russ.

WESLEY RUSS: So we didn’t have anything on the books to prevent them from putting the scooters out.

He said the company started with putting out 75 to 100 scooters, but by the beginning of November there were around 200 out on the streets. They sort of fit in with the city’s goals.

RUSS: The city’s done a lot to try and promote travel by means other than a single occupancy vehicle, with bike lanes and sidewalks everywhere.... Turning away a private sector group that wants to come in and drastically increase the ridership in our bike lanes virtually overnight and at no cost to us, when that has been a long-term goal for the city, … seemed like a weird direction to go.

College students seem to love riding the things – at least, that’s who I found out and about.

CLYMER KURTZ: So you were riding a scooter and you think you got a broken one.

Emma O’Brien is a grad student; I talked to her near Kline’s Dairy Bar.

EMMA O’BRIEN: At least I think the little handle was jammed because it just like wouldn’t stop going, and I had to hop off of that one cause it was, just kept going, had to like hold it so yeah a little bit a scary one there. But usually they’re pretty fun, like I rode one this weekend for brunch, like just down here cause I live at Urban so super handy for me downtown.

They do pose a safety risk. In October a JMU student on a scooter was seriously injured when a car struck her. Bird requires that riders are at least 18 years old, but Russ said wearing a helmet isn’t required – just recommended – in Harrisonburg. Riders shouldn’t use earbuds, he said, and should use bike lanes when possible, and follow the rules of the road. As for sidewalks?

RUSS: Certainly in downtown where we’ve prohibited bicycles on sidewalks they should not be ridden there. We’re still trying to decide what position we want to take on scooters on sidewalks kind of in lower-pedestrian-traffic areas.

The scooters are charged overnight by independent contractors, but not college students living on campus: JMU sent out a mass email in October noting that charging scooters for profit is prohibited in university buildings. Russ said there is potential for the city to develop more guidelines, such as about where the scooters can be placed by those contractors, or maybe even creating permitting fees for the scooter company.

Having the scooters here might provide another benefit for the city: data.

RUSS: Bird has offered to share all of their ridership data with us, in an anonymous fashion, basically start locations, end locations, routes so that we can try and piece together, how are people using these. Are there areas that are high traffic, that maybe we don’t have a bike lane and we should.

Back out on the town, I see still more students zipping along.

CLAUDIA CHURCHILL: I’ve only ridden it once to class, and then my friend asked if I wanted to come downtown and Bird, so that’s why we’re here.

CLYMER KURTZ: So you came downtown to Bird. So it’s a thing.

CHURCHILL: Yes. Yeah, it’s a thing. They’re kind of tricky to use, you have to get used to it.

CLYMER KURTZ: You were going pretty fast down there.

CHURCHILL: I know. That was fun. That was really fast .

CLYMER KURTZ: You’re not worried about falling and hitting your head?

CHURCHILL: I mean, a little bit, I guess. You just have to be aware of your surroundings.

I also see Desmon Wichael, out for a walk – not a ride.

DESMON WICHAEL: I just noticed those, the last couple of days.

CLYMER KURTZ: Have you tried them?

WICHAEL: No I don’t have time for that. Hell, I need to walk at my age anyway. It’s a novelty I guess – like kids with skateboards.

Time will tell. For now, though, Harrisonburg has a bit of an electric scooter invasion on its hands.

Note:  As of mid-November, it's not just BIRD scooters flocking in – a company called LIME has also distributed its scooters in Harrisonburg, but some of those models in other places have been recalled for safety reasons.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.