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Change by Design: The Birds of Ann Arbor

During the 2018-2019 academic year, students in Stamps Professor Nick Tobier’s Change by Design (ART 314) course addressed the new arrival of Bird scooters to Ann Arbor.

While Bird’s mission is to make cities more livable by reducing car usage, traffic, and carbon emissions, critics of the rental scooters question the company’s lack of forethought into safety and city planning.

“First impressions of the Bird scooters were enthusiastic — maybe we in the Midwest registered as a population worthy of pedestrian-scale innovation,” said Tobier. “Then followed some questions — what does the deposit of unregulated semi-motorized vehicles say for safety, for urban planning, for public space use? Why do I need to have a credit card, or a driver's’ license for that matter? In those early weeks you could find BIRD scooters clustered around campus, lodged in shrubbery, at least once in a tree, and frequently out of juice.”

Tobier’s students considered the scooter sharing service further, prompting questions of equity and access, control and regulation of public space, as well as imaginative visions for the future of transportation.

Student teams reconceptualized the Bird experience with a redesign of existing roadways to accommodate these new 7 mph vehicles. They also proposed subtle design manipulations of the slender vehicles, including a triangular basket for groceries, an add-on structure to enable two riders at once, and a wheeled addition that rescued the Bird from being stranded by a drained battery.

Ultimately, the student teams decided that the sheer joy that the Birds brought to campus made them worth improving upon, rather than scrapping all together. Stamps student Elaine Atzmon (BFA ‘20) summarized the Bird experience this way: “After a simple set up and initiation process, I took a deep breath and started flying by Bird. Within seconds nothing else mattered, only that which was right in front of me. My wings were spread and I was free.”