The meteoric growth of Bird and other e-scooter companies has created a shadowy ecosystem of nocturnal "chargers"--freelance contractors who scoop up e-scooters every evening to recharge them, who typically get paid per scooter. Staff writer Will Yakowicz spent time with them in California.
It's nearly 8 o'clock at the corner of Hollister and Barnard in Santa Monica, and a few men start circling discarded Birds like vultures. Half an hour later, Teo Martinez, an employee who works as a "Bird watcher"--someone who moves poorly parked scooters to designated "nests"--rolls up to the same corner riding a cargo bike stacked with about 10 Birds. Two gray-haired "chargers," looking like they're in their 60s, start grabbing the Birds before Martinez can unload them.
Soon the two men are yanking on opposite handlebars of the same Bird, arguing over who snagged it first. I snap a picture, and one of them, who only gives his name as Ryan, drops the Bird and approaches me sheepishly, begging me to delete the picture. He's a local business owner trying to stay afloat, he says, and needs the money to pay off credit card debt. He doesn't want his friends to know that he's struggling. "It's like being caught stripping--a sign of desperation," he says. "It's one level up from collecting cans."
Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden sees chargers as an "empowered community," saying, "I think, if you talk to most chargers, they're excited to do it. They like the money piece, but for them it's like a game of Pokémon Go." But I'm seeing a contact sport being played by people struggling to make ends meet.
Birds must be collected and recharged every night. Bird pays from $5 to $20 per scooter per charge, depending on how difficult it is to locate it and how much juice it needs. In every Bird city, an army of freelance subcontractors is enlisted to collect e-scooters, starting at 9 p.m. (Lime has a similar model.) The recharged Birds are redeployed in their designated nests starting at 4 a.m.
Bird finds its chargers through its app and by posting ads on Craigslist. Those who get the gig are directed to instructional videos, and Bird sends them adapters to plug the e-scooters into home outlets. (Scooter mechanics, who are recruited similarly, get a small box of tools.)
Ryan says he collects about 40 Birds a night--which is good for about $200--and hopes this means he can pay off his debt in three months. At times, he says, arguments like the one I witnessed escalate. "I carry pepper spray," he says. "It's dangerous being out here at night. People get aggressive and throw punches."
Scott Gerhardt, a 42-year-old charger, works with his girlfriend, filling her garage with 30 to 40 e-scooters each night. The money from Bird and Lime (perhaps to avoid tensions at home, he charges for Lime and she charges for Bird) is his only recurring income. "Charging has been my saving grace," he says, while we grab a couple of scooters on Main Street and ride them back to the garage to plug them into makeshift charging stations. He's been unemployed for more than a year.
A scooter weighs about 30 pounds, and trying to keep up with Gerhardt is harder than I thought it would be. Soon, I'm out of breath and hobbled by a pulled hip muscle. We track down scooters in parking garages, in alleys, in front of houses on residential side streets, and near the beach. "It's a take-no-prisoners, work-as-quickly-as-you-can gig," says Gerhardt, who wears a fanny pack stuffed with backup phone chargers and bungee cords--the latter so he can wrap scooters together, stack five on top of one another, and ride them to the garage.
Another night, I spot three men in a beat-up Toyota pickup with about 10 Birds in the flatbed, but the driver declines an interview. "If I don't get enough Birds," he says, "I don't eat."