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Ideas

Inside the shadow world of scooter chargers

Scooters are overtaking American cities — and they’ve spawned a nighttime army of gig-economy workers.

By Megan Koester

“If I can get four hours of sleep, that’s amazing,” says a man I’ll call Keith. It’s almost midnight and we’re driving around the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, looking for ride-share scooters to put in his truck, the cab of which smells like sweat. I get the impression the scent is a permanent fixture of the vehicle.

When we’re done, Keith will return to his home, 20 miles away, and charge the 12 scooters he’s collected. He’ll leave again at 5 a.m. to drop them off in Venice, after which he’ll take his kids to school and attempt to sleep some more — that is, if his two-year-old will let him. At the end of the night, he’ll have made $60 (less, of course, the $15 in gas it took to drive to and fro).

If you’ve been to LA or any other major city recently, you’ve seen them flying down bike lanes and strewn across sidewalks — electric scooters from venture capital-backed companies like Bird and Lime. While, at first appearance, scooters seem to be a touristy novelty, the companies that own them consider themselves to be in the same business as Uber, Lyft, and bike-sharing startups, proclaiming themselves to be a transportation solution for crowded urban centers and promising to fill the gaps in public infrastructure.

Scooters have, in a short amount of time, become an omnipresent feature of Los Angeles’s landscape. And while a small handful of municipalities have banned them, by and large local leadership has welcomed them, albeit cautiously. (“There’s no denying the popularity and ease of shared mobility devices that can help Santa Monica reach its goal of being a multimodal city,” Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer said at a city council meeting last year, “yet we must balance that with a serious need to hold companies accountable to ensure responsible behavior on our streets and sidewalks.”) The Los Angeles transportation department has given eight companies approval to disperse a combined 24,000 bikes and scooters across the city; the department has received applications from 11 companies to deploy nearly 40,000 bikes and scooters in all.

Riders use their phones to unlock Bird scooters in Santa Monica, Calif.

As an ever-growing portion of LA’s transportation needs are outsourced to private scooter companies, the companies in turn outsource the care and maintenance of their fleets to private contractors like Keith, known as “chargers,” who collect scooters at night, recharge them at home, and return them to the streets between the hours of 4 and 7 a.m. They are players in a sudden shadow economy, largely unregulated, with its own odd jargon and rituals — a nightly, gamified scavenger hunt for nominal pay.

It’s impossible to know how many contractors there are; Bird and Lime are privately held and don’t reveal many statistics about their operations. Bird declined requests to comment for this story; a Lime spokesman wrote, in an email, that “we’ve found that juicing [Lime’s terminology for charging] has proven to be a very engaging and fun way to make extra money.” Indeed, the current and former chargers I talked to — all of whom asked not to use their names for fear of retribution — used the gig as supplemental income, as there’s no way to make such a low-paying job into your primary one. Some were drawn to the ability to work during off hours, others happy to find a job that didn’t require a background check. Keith, who does it in order to help get his family out of debt, told me he’d rather be collecting and charging scooters than driving for Lyft — the statement made as though this were a binary choice.


California and congestion go hand in hand, and Los Angeles is the state’s most congested city — last year, it was the most congested city in the world, period. There are currently over eight million vehicles registered in the county of Los Angeles alone. Despite large investments, public transit ridership remains on the decline; fewer than 3 percent of Southern Californians use it regularly. And some advocates, companies, and enthusiasts have been pitching scooters as the answer.

Scooters have quickly overtaken bicycles as the most popular form of transportation outside of cars and public transit in the U.S., and the startups that unleashed them speak in grandiosely altruistic tones. “Bird is committed to Vision Zero, a global movement to make mobility safer, healthier and more equitable for everyone on the road,” declares the website of Bird, the Santa Monica-based startup that introduced ride-share scooters to the world. “Bird scooters not only reduce the need for cars, they raise awareness of transportation alternatives and encourage cities to invest in safety infrastructure that benefits everyone.”Vision Zero is an initiative that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025. At least four fatalities and over 1,500 injuries have occurred on ride-share scooters since their introduction in 2017.

While Bird may have been the progenitor of the scooter trend, it’s no longer the only player in the game. A number of competitors — Lime, Spin (owned by Ford), Scoot, and Jump (owned by Uber, which also invested $30 million in Lime) — have sprung up in the past two years. One key component of the business model is the fact that their “chargers” are independent contractors, who, given their non-employee status, don’t need to be paid a minimum wage.

Additionally, because scooter companies describe themselves as technology platforms, not transportation companies, they claim to have minimal obligations to ensure their contractors’ safety and conduct. This applies even when they send a charger to someone’s house to collect hoarded scooters, or to a police station to pick up a Bird the cops have requested be removed from the property — something two chargers I spoke to say they were instructed to do at Bird’s behest.

As with all gig economy jobs, the selling point of becoming a charger is the promise of freedom, of being your own boss. But that also means you have to take on the responsibilities of a boss, covering everything required to ensure the work is done. Gas, wear and tear on your car, wear and tear on your body. There is no workers comp, no medical leave.

In the days after my charging expedition, I would receive clinically exuberant emails and text messages from Bird encouraging me to go out and charge more.

The business model has been attractive to investors; as of January of this year, Bird and Lime were valued at $2 billion and $3 billion, respectively. Both founded in 2017, they are two of the youngest companies ever to reach the status of “unicorn:” a privately held startup valued at over $1 billion. They pay their chargers “bounties” of between $3 and $8 per scooter.

I decided to try out Bird charging for a day. While it took Keith a month to be approved, I was given the all-clear in one afternoon, after exchanging text messages with what alleged to be a human but felt like a bot. I wondered if Bird desperately needed chargers, having recently capped its bounties at $5 per scooter to discourage hoarding, driving some of its labor force to competitors in the process. (Before, the longer a Bird scooter went uncharged, the higher its bounty became, which resulted in chargers hoarding them to maximize profits.)

Once given charging privileges on Bird’s app, I searched for available scooters in my neighborhood, which show up as pins on a map designed to make you feel like you’re navigating a video game. One was clearly behind an apartment building. Another was either inside a homeless encampment or thrown over the fence next to it. Many simply didn’t exist; while they showed up on the map, they were nowhere to be found in the real world, a phenomenon Keith refers to as “ghost scooters.”

The Los Angeles transportation department has given eight companies approval to disperse a combined 24,000 bikes and scooters across the city.

I was finally able to retrieve three, and charged them in my kitchen. At 5 a.m., I awoke to release them to the nearest available “nest,” Bird’s term for its sanctioned drop-off locations, but had troubles with the app. No matter how many times I refreshed it, no nests showed up.

Paranoid I’d be accused of hoarding if I didn’t dump the scooters before 7 a.m., I awkwardly walked them down the street and placed them in a nest outside someone’s house, making sure to copiously document the process in order to receive my $14 bounty (I charged two Birds for $5 and one for $4). It was windy that morning; the scooters kept falling over on unstable dirt. Walking away, light just breaking, I heard them clatter into a pile.

In the days after my sole charging expedition, I would receive clinically exuberant emails and text messages from Bird encouraging me to go out and charge more (“Exciting news! You’re guaranteed $240 when you charge and release at least 40 Birds!”), but technology restricted my potential payoff. Given three chargers at the outset, I was told I could purchase more from the company. A link in an email I received (“Want to charge more Birds but are limited by power supplies? Good news — You can now buy more power supplies through our website!”) led to a webpage where I could buy three power supplies for $73.08. I’d have to charge at least 15 Birds just to recoup the cost.

Keith has more than enough chargers, but his earning power has been capped by Lime, where he moved after Bird decreased its bounties. With Lime, the higher your “charger rating,” the more scooters you’re allowed to charge. One day, Keith says, the app glitched, mistakenly thought he was hoarding, and decreased his rating, docking his capacity by 50 percent. Keith says he attempted to explain the situation to Lime’s tech support but got nowhere. Lime’s spokesman offered to look into Keith’s case, and offered one theory: “If a Juicer collects the scooters before they appear in the app, then that person is breaking the guidelines of the program and may have his or her rating lowered. Lime has data to track this type of activity and take action based on the number of times a Juicer has done this to ensure a positive experience for all engaged in the program.”

Another recent night was a total loss for Keith, because he overslept and missed the drop-off deadline. In order to prevent his rating from getting docked further, he cancelled the drop-off and left the scooters in a beach parking lot. “I didn’t get paid,” he says, “but I wasn’t docked more.”

Keith isn’t the only one losing money. Ride-share scooters generate $2.43 in revenue per mile, but cost $2.55 per mile to operate, more even than Uber’s $2.50. The extra cost stems from the fact that, unlike Uber, Bird owns its fleet. Which is where vandalism and theft, two problems that increase costs, come into play.

Destroying these scooters has become a popular pastime for teens, with the Instagram account Bird Graveyard gleefully collecting and curating videos of their demise. Thieves replace the scooters’ GPS-tracked motherboards with parts easily acquired on eBay and illegally convert them to rideable, sellable scooters.

Bird’s first fleet of scooters, many of which are still on the road, were commercial models, not manufactured for ride-sharing purposes — which means they’re incredibly hackable. YouTube videos quickly teach the interested how to convert them. A man I’ll call Joaquin, who in the past six months has converted more than 40 scooters and sold them for $250 each, feels little remorse. “I am truly against theft,” he says. “I would never take from someone on the grind who struggles like me. But these venture capitalists with millions and millions of investment money are the ones in my scope. I guess I’m just trying to get my piece of the pie.”

Scooters have quickly overtaken bicycles as the most popular form of transportation outside of cars and public transit in the U.S.

Scooter chargers like Keith are, in theory, a line of defense against theft and destruction. Bird also ventured into the gig economy with a since-eliminated mechanics program, which outsourced the maintenance of the vehicles to contract workers. One contract mechanic I spoke to, whom I’ll call Brett, says he was enticed by a $15 per scooter bounty; he applied and was on-boarded the same day. “They signed me on with no background check,” he says. “They didn’t even call me, didn’t ask my experience. I just filled out a Google form. They sent me a link to some video tutorials on how to do repairs, and all of a sudden I was a mechanic for Bird.” Other former mechanics corroborate this experience.

Brett found the experience frustrating. Bird was “perpetually out of everything, so we couldn’t do repairs efficiently, and the unspoken rule was we just took parts off other Birds and put them on the damaged ones. Basically, they wanted Birds back on the street whether they were ride-worthy or not.” Bird did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“These companies are putting profit over safety,” says Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney representing nine injured plaintiffs who filed a class-action suit against Lime and Bird in October, accusing them of gross negligence. In a public statement in response to the suit, Bird said that cars cause far more fatalities across the United States.

Keith won’t let his 12-year-old daughter ride electric scooters, even though she wants to. They’re “so rickety” he doesn’t trust them; his “heart stops” when he sees a parent riding one with a kid. “If you knew how many bolts were loose in that thing,” he says, shaking his head.

“I would never take from someone on the grind who struggles like me. But these venture capitalists with millions and millions of investment money are the ones in my scope.”

Safety is one of the growing concerns raised by scooter company critics, though California recently passed a bill — sponsored by Bird — that eliminated helmet requirements for riders over 18. Some critics also charge that scooters aren’t as environmentally sustainable as the companies claim.

“Bird and Lime would seem to have a limited market — short trips in dense city areas,” says Genevieve Giuliano, the Director of the METRANS Transportation Center, a technology research center affiliated with the University of Southern California and California State University Long Beach. “The market is further limited by the physical task of riding a scooter. I have yet to see a person with grey hair on a scooter, and I rarely see women on scooters.”

Still, the scooters’ popularity is holding strong, at least for now — a recent report found that 70 percent of people polled in 10 major U.S. cities viewed them positively. “In our first year, Bird launched in over 100 cities and provided over 10 million rides,” boasts the company’s promotional material. “And we’re only just getting started.” So for the labor force that keeps these scooters on the road, the nightly hunt continues.

On the night we’re out, Keith “captures” his final scooter right before 12 a.m. A guy in a pristine leather jacket speeds by on a Lime while he scans it in. Keith dryly laughs. “Those things are everywhere,” he says.

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Megan Koester is a writer and comedian based in Los Angeles.

 

Illustration by Mar Hernández. Photos by Richard Vogel/Associated Press

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