Annapolis unveiled pay-per-use Bird e-bikes and scooters last week as part of a micro-mobility program rollout to help people navigate the city in something other than a car while Noah Hillman Garage is under construction.
A few days into its operation, some residents began questioning why parts of the city, including public housing communities, the Naval Academy and St. John’s College, and other private properties, weren’t included in the program.
Some large private properties like those owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis declined to participate, but none were willfully excluded from the program, said Cate Pettit, Mayor Gavin Buckley’s chief of staff.
“There’s no intent in any of this, deliberate or even accidental, to leave these residents out, but we do have to work with HACA and respect what they asked from us,” Pettit said Friday.
In recent months the city negotiated with Bird, a national electric vehicle company, to place the electric vehicles throughout nearly all of the city’s 7 square miles. However, some areas of the city were shaded gray on the smartphone app meaning scooters and bikes don’t work there. The company uses a technology known as geofencing to limit access to areas that also include most trails in Truxtun Park, around the Maryland State House and city cemeteries.
Several other large privately owned apartment complexes like Nautilus Point, Shearwater Condominiums, Westwinds and Bayshore Landing are accessible with Bird.
This week, several communities that had previously been off-limits, including Woodside Gardens, Annapolis Gardens, Bay Ridge Gardens and Admiral Oaks and private homes along Clay Street, became unrestricted.
The properties were mistakenly fenced-off by Bird because they were thought to be managed by the housing authority but aren’t, said Mitchelle Stephenson, a city spokesperson.
Buckley addressed the situation during his opening remarks at the Annapolis City Council meeting Monday, urging residents to be patient as the new vehicles proliferate on city streets and promising to adapt the program is time goes on.
“We are a week into the introductory phase. Some areas around town are geo-fenced, meaning the scooters won’t operate in these places,” he said. “We built this out to be inclusive and equitable. And over the past few days, I’ve been delighted to see people from all walks of life using them.”
Buckley asked riders to follow the rules including wearing helmets and obeying traffic laws. In order to sign up for the Bird app, riders must certify they are 18 years old or older, will wear a helmet when required by law, obey traffic laws and limit one person per vehicle.
Free helmets can be obtained through the Bird app. The city will also be distributing helmets at events this summer, Buckley said.
I tested the limits of the geofencing with a scooter at Gate 1 of the USNA and indeed when you get to the edge of the property, your scooter shuts down and won’t operate again until you move away. I’ve been told it’s the same for other properties. pic.twitter.com/KqsCsYIxGY
— Brooks DuBose (@b3dubose) May 20, 2022
The housing authority saw the program as a potential safety and liability issue, said Executive Director Melissa Maddox-Evans.
Maddox-Evans’ agency, which oversees a half-dozen properties and around 800 housing units, has come under financial strain in recent months and did not want to risk additional property damage as a result of riders entering HACA property, she said. She instead advocated for the boundaries of Bird’s map to be as close as possible to housing authority properties so that residents could still access the service.
“What I had requested is that the bikes be operable on the city streets that are next to our properties but not on the property itself,” she said, “so that we don’t have the task of removing bikes from doorways and from our pathways. … We don’t want them to be obstructions on our property, but we want our residents to have access to it.”
According to the Bird map, Maddox-Evans’ wishes appear to have been met. For instance, in the Eastport Terrace community, riders can use Frederick Douglass and Medgar Evers streets, but in order to reach nearby Harbor House, would have to use President and Madison streets.
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A Capital reporter tested the limits of the geofencing technology at the Gate 1 entrance to the Naval Academy on Friday. Almost all of the city is accessible to the silver-and-blue Bird devices, which can be unlocked through a smartphone app that guides users through payment and operation instructions.
When one of Bird’s devices enters one of the off-limits areas, it stops working and a message in the Bird app reads, “Riding and parking isn’t allowed here. Leave this area so you can park and your bird can resume normal speed.”
Bird offers a number of programs focused on equitable access, including automatically discounting trips starting in predetermined equity zones within the city and another called Bird’s Community Pricing option that provides 50% off standard unlock and per-minute fees to low-income residents, veterans, seniors and Pell Grant recipients. Those programs are accessible through the Bird app.
“Bird is committed to removing barriers to micro-mobility and first- and last-mile transportation,” a Bird spokesperson said in an email. “For low-income residents, we understand addressing transportation equity includes ensuring our service is both affordable and increases access to Annapolis’ wider public transit system.”
St. John’s College declined to participate in the program because of ongoing construction projects, but that could change in the future, said Jen Behrens, a college spokesperson.
“Due to continuing construction projects on campus, St. John’s has not determined how best to integrate the new bikeshare program into our campus operations,” Behrens wrote in an email. “We remain open to considering future involvement and will continue our conversations with the city on this front.”