Dockless Birds in Athens

Bird dockless share scooters sit along Athen's Broad Street on Saturday. / Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald

Bird landed in Athens last week, but it remains to be seen whether it will fly.

Bird is a Santa Monica, California, electric scooter-share company founded by a former Lyft and Uber executive.

Little “nests” of the rental vehicles began showing up throughout Athens last week with no prior notice. The same thing is happening in cities across the U.S.

Users who sign up with the company can go online to find out where one is, use it to get to where they’re going, then leave it behind. People hired by the company follow the scooters’ tracking devices to pick them up, then charge their batteries and put them back out for the next users to pick up.

But less than a week after the little Birds’ unannounced deployment, the University of Georgia has begun impounding them, and Athens-Clarke County might follow suit. Athens-Clarke commissioners also told Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman in a recent meeting that police should go ahead and start citing users who use the scooters illegally; mainly, by operating them on sidewalks.

So far, police had only been issuing warnings.

The scooters, which can go up to about 15 mph, are legal to operate on public streets that have a speed limit under 35 mph. It’s against state law to operate them on sidewalks, and it’s a violation of Athens-Clarke ordinances to leave them behind on sidewalks.

Like other motorized vehicles, they’re not allowed on the greenway system, either.

For the moment, Athens-Clarke can’t routinely seize scooters abandoned on city sidewalks, because of a legal prior-notice requirement, county attorneys Sherrie Hines and Bill Berryman told the Athens-Clarke County Commission’s Legislative Review Committee on Thursday. The government could take steps that would allow authorities to seize and impound scooters left on city sidewalks, however.

It was unclear whether they could be operated in bicycle paths.

But that’s one of the issues the lawyers will now work on as the commission scrambles to regulate the flocking Birds. The commission could also ban them outright, though there seemed little sentiment for that in Thursday’s meeting.

Birds operating on the sidewalk are dangerous for pedestrians, Freeman said.

Mayor Nancy Denson, sitting in on Thursday’s meeting, agreed that the Birds can pose a danger to pedestrians, but said they can be a viable transportation option. She gave an example of an older person who might use one for a distance a little too far to walk.

“I think there are good reasons to consider them, but we need to address these issues,” she said.

The committee was already scheduled to discuss the regulation of motorized vehicles on public property at Thursday’s meeting. Denson had assigned that task back in March, long before Bird’s plans were widely known. But commissioners expected to be talking more about golf carts and mopeds than little electric scooters that you can rent for pennies a minute.

Bird’s unannounced appearance in Athens is being replicated in cities across the country including nearby Atlanta as part of a marketing plan. That plan may be working well, judging from the amount of news coverage the company has garnered in the cities and towns where flocks of Birds have been deposited.