Bird became the first electric scooter service to launch in the U.K. today, after finding a legal loophole in an 1835 law that has so far blocked the popular scooters from Britain’s streets.
The launch is part of a pilot at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park which will start with scooters being restricted to a 1-mile stretch of private footpath used by commuters to Stratford’s Here East tech hub.
“Technology always comes ahead of legislation,” Richard Corbett, head of Bird UK told Forbes.
“What we can do is we can ride on private land. Effectively this means that we can launch in locations such as airports, universities, business campuses, and parks with the landowner’s permission.”
The launch will see 50 scooters available to rent for £1 ($1.30) plus 20p/minute ($0.20), Corbett says Bird has approval from the Olympic Park to expand the trial to 100 scooters as demand grows.
“It’s the first step on a long journey to change regulations,” he said. “The more trials we can do, the more we can demonstrate the viability of the service, the better and the quicker we can change regulations.”
Forbes understands that Loughborough University, which has a postgraduate campus at Here East, has shown interest in deploying Bird scooters at its main campus, depending on the success of the Olympic Park pilot.
For now however, these electric scooters are restricted by this rather inelegant loophole in British law that Bird has discovered, not that the company would describe it like that.
For example, these electric scooters can be used on private footpaths, but only where those footpaths don’t interact with roads that are accessible to public vehicles.
What this means for Stratford is a rather messy compromise. Firstly, Bird riders will be asked to disembark in order to cross the two or three roads that cut across the footpath (although many will surely ignore this rule).
Secondly, it means the GPS geofence that controls where the scooters can be used (by disabling the electric motor and eventually locking the wheels) is unforgiving—take a wrong turn or drift off the ‘approved route’ and you’ll be left with a powerless push scooter in minutes.
Bird says it will also restrict its scooters’ hours of operation to between 7am and 9pm, with additional restrictions and removal of the scooters when West Ham is playing soccer at the nearby London Stadium.
All of this is to say that Bird’s launch today is a compromise.
Across Europe Bird is quickly expanding across Paris, it’s first European city, Brussels, Vienna, Antwerp, Zurich and Madrid, which launched yesterday.
In these cities, electric scooters are quickly being adopted by tens of thousands of people to help solve the “last mile” of their commutes.
Bird is already valued at $2 billion and has 2.1 million registered riders around the world who have taken over 10 million rides.
But due to the U.K.’s archaic transport rules, along with the political priorities of Brexit, Bird and rival scooter service Lime face a long hard slog in getting the regulatory changes they need.
Partial launches and pilots on private land only go so far and Bird’s Olympic Park rollout with its current restrictions will likely frustrate just as many people as it delights.
But for a company like Bird trying to push for substantial legislative change, frustrated customers might be exactly what’s needed.