Andy Didorosi is a younger man, energetic and often down for fun activities, but it took a toy to make him understand a particular injustice facing children in this era of two Detroits.
In one Detroit, hipsters and businesspeople zip around town on rent-by-the-minute electric scooters, dumped on the streets of downtown by two Silicon Valley companies with promises that new frontiers in urban transportation await those who ride – driver’s license and credit card required.
In the other, far less well-off kids see fun they’re not allowed to have.
A connection clicked when Didorosi, owner of the Detroit Bus Company, found himself eager to learn more about the rental scooter business: “Obviously, I work in transportation, and want to understand urban mobility the best I can.” So besides reading up on the two major corporate players -- Bird and Lime -- he signed up to be a "charger" for Bird.
Anyone who’s ever dealt with an internet-based company will recognize how Bird and Lime handle much of the scut work of running an electric-scooter company – via gig workers. Chargers sign up via the app and are sent the proprietary plug they need.
Then it's up to individuals to drive around town in the evenings, using the app to find and collect dead Birds and take them home for charging, before redistributing them on the streets by 7 the following morning. Pay ranges from $5 for easy-to-find scooters to $20 for ones missing for a while.
Didorosi was curious how the economics would work. Would it be more lucrative to charge a lot of $5 scooters, or put in the effort to find the hard cases?
Scooters Are Fun (Batteries Optional)
He noticed something almost immediately: Often the GPS locators for the $20 Birds – showing the last known location – indicated they were in public housing complexes. And they weren’t in public areas; they seemed to be in individual apartments. In the middle of the night, which is when he made his first rounds, he wasn’t inclined to go knocking on doors.
This past Sunday night, though, he visited one such housing development in the early evening, around dusk. He found a group of about 10 kids riding around on dead scooters, both Birds and Limes -- not zipping around under electric power, but pushing them with a foot, the way scooters have always been ridden.
They were playing.
What had happened came to Didorosi in a flash: If you try to take a Bird without paying, "it beeps, and then it tries to freeze the motor. But it’s not a mechanical lock – it uses electricity to resist the motion. It only has so much battery, so if you push it long enough it becomes a push scooter."
One kid approached and asked what Didorosi was doing. He explained that he was collecting scooters to recharge them. The boy immediately offered the one he was riding. He didn’t know that technically, he was playing with stolen property.
"I mean, he’s 9," Didorosi said. "This company puts its property in plain sight on street corners. It’s a gray area."
Not So Cool for Everyone
But eventually, they’d have to give them up. And Didorosi figured, why not get some for them to play with legally?
So he’s trying to raise money with the goal of putting 100 scooters, electric and push, in the hands of Detroit children. Because why should people with credit cards and driver’s licenses have all the fun?
"As I was pulling away, I had about 12 kids all watching me take the scooter they had previously been playing with. I felt terrible about it," Didorosi wrote on his Facebook page. "To watch well-to-do people roll up, scan it with their app and ride away joyfully is probably pretty hard. It's one of those things you don't think about when you're trying out the newest startup and it's all fun, but there's plenty of people out there -- Detroit's youth especially -- who don't get to take part in this ‘big cool future.'"
Didorosi added a fundraising page to the Detroit Bus Company site, called, amusingly, “Play Free Bird.” In the first few hours, they’d raised over $1,400, accepted donations of seven scooters (one electric, six kick-style) and six helmets.
Purchase and distribution is still an open question. Didorosi said he’d like to buy both types of scooter -- pushers for younger children and electric ones for older ones who might need to get to school or a job. But realistically, he can't give one to every kid who wants one.
He’d like to start with the housing complex in Midtown where he first realized what Detroit children were using them for.
But beyond that? He’ll have to figure it out. He'd like to work with community centers, church groups and others who are closer to these children.
Whatever he settles on, he hopes that at least a few kids experience "unexpected instant joy." Because isn’t that what play is all about?