Emails show how $2 billion electric scooter startup Bird is copying Uber’s playbook to conquer new markets

Woman Bird electric scooter

  • US scooter startups such as Bird wouldn’t exist if Uber hadn’t pioneered its ride-sharing model around the world.
  • That’s because Uber paved the way in taking on entrenched transport rules and winning, if not always through legitimate means.
  • Uber came up with a new way of communicating with regulators, selling itself as a solution to city congestion, pollution, and car ownership.
  • Emails obtained by Business Insider show how scooter startup Bird has borrowed this language to try and win regulatory approval.

Make no mistake, if Uber didn’t exist, neither would the new crop of electric scooter startups that are currently exploding across the US right now.

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 per 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 government and regulators as it bids to crack new markets.

Those emails not only reveal 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:

1. We reduce car ownership

bird scooter

One of the cleverest Silicon Valley tricks Uber pulled off was selling the narrative that its service isn’t about providing cheap cabs, but 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 (TfL, in April about how electric scooters can 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."

Bird email

2. We decrease pollution and congestion


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 use 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 frees up car parking spaces.

Bird’s Studener wrote in his April email that scooters "reduces congestion on the roads, as well as frees up significant amounts of parking space which can be repurposed over time."

He continued: "Most importantly [this] 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.

3. We solve the "last-mile" problem


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’, where a person (or an item) can travel most of the way to their destination, but then the last leg — getting from a bus or train station to the home — is more difficult and expensive.

"We found that one in four Uber journeys in London is to or from a tube or train station. 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," policy chief Andrew Byrne said in 2017. 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. This includes areas of low income / property but also areas with an underserved transport infrastructure," wrote Richard Corbett, Bird’s UK head, in a June message to TfL.

4. Your laws are antiquated and blocking innovation

horse carriage

Before Uber adopted a more conciliatory approach to regulators, the company would regularly criticise "outdated laws" that threatened to regulate its service.

Uber faces regulation as a transport rather than tech company after a European ruling last year and the company responded badly at the time. "[This] will undermine the much needed reform of outdated laws which prevent millions of Europeans from accessing a reliable ride at the tap of a button," a spokesman said.

Both Studener and Corbett from Bird adopted a similar tone in their emails on being told that electric scooters are 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 which require scooters to be registered as vehicles.

"The legislation that is in effect is 100+ years old…" complained Corbett, referencing the Highway Act. "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 might need an update. "We fully appreciate that this might require reviewing the laws mentioned dating back as far back as 1835… as things hopefully moved into a better direction versus 183 years ago," he said.

Bird email

5. We can help make cities smarter by sharing data

Oxford Circus

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 makes a brief reference to data sharing, but you can hear the echoes of Uber. Bird said it works "closely" with cities to share information, and even promises to share revenue to fund sustainability projects. "The more Birds are used instead of cars, the more projects are funded," Studener wrote.

Bird email

SEE ALSO: Private emails reveal how multibillion-dollar startups Bird and Lime are lobbying to launch their illegal scooters in Britain

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