For the Birds

I spent two weeks trying to charge electric scooters for extra cash. What I got was a lot of headaches.

Bird scooter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bird.

Last fall, a new kind of ride-sharing came to the streets of Santa Monica, California, when a company called Bird began leaving electric scooters on sidewalks throughout the city. Rather than using dedicated docking areas, Birds, as the scooters are called, can be picked up and dropped off anywhere. They’re fast and cheap, with most trips running $2 to $3, and by releasing thousands of them, the company hopes to ensure that any user is no more than five minutes away from an available ride. Now they’ve expanded to other cities, including Nashville, Tennessee, and San Francisco, where an intense turf war between Bird, LimeBike, and Spin began in March.

But someone has to keep those scooters juiced up. After I signed up as a user a few weeks ago to see whether they would help cut down on driving my car for short errands, I noticed that the app featured an offer to “Become a Charger!” It seemed like a pretty good gig—a few bucks for a fairly minimal amount of work. I decided to try recharging the scooters at night, in my garage. Although the company recommends using a car to collect the Birds at night, I wanted to find them on foot, for a little extra evening exercise.

Bird sent me three chargers, and a peppy rep gave me a quick briefing: Each night I was to switch on the newly enabled “charger” mode in the Bird app and collect scooters flagged as available for charging. Although juicing up most Birds would give me $5, ones that had been AWOL for a while became progressively more valuable, up to $20. The rep made it sound like there was just free money sitting on the sidewalk each night, just waiting for me to scoop up.

But it turns out the charging system is akin to a real-life Pokémon Go, albeit one rife with cheating. The app purports to tell you where nearby chargeable scooters are, but in reality that’s rarely the case. Duplicitous collectors have created a thriving ecosystem of stockpiling, hiding, and decoying that makes it well-nigh impossible to find a scooter in need of charging.

When picking up a scooter, chargers are supposed to “capture” it via a button on the app. Doing this deletes the flag so others don’t waste time scouting for that particular Bird. It also stops the clock on the reimbursement meter. The longer a scooter goes without being captured, the greater the commission Bird will pay its chargers. Although a small percentage of scooters run out of juice early in the day, the majority only become available after 9 p.m., when the rental network shuts down for the night. At that point, you have to dash out, grab them, and ride or drive them home. Once you plug them in, they take about 3–4 hours to recharge, and then you have to get them back on the street in nearby Nests (designated drop-off sites, of which there are hundreds) before 7 a.m. to get paid the full value of each Bird. In practice, this means that after an hour of searching in the dark, you have to get up early the next day to complete the job and get paid. Every time you do this, you’re volunteering for a miniclopening shift.

But I didn’t realize all of this at first. I was so innocent then. Herewith is a diary of my brief career as a Bird charger.

Day 1: Zero Birds, zero dollars earned. Despite a map full of green flags, I can’t find a single available scooter anywhere. When I come to a spot where a Bird ought to be, I can trigger it to beep and flash if it’s within range of my Bluetooth signal. Repeatedly the app tells me the alarm was successful, but I don’t see any Birds. Late in the evening at a grocery store, I happen upon an unattended pickup full of scooters that are allegedly “uncaptured,” but I decide that lifting some off the pile would be unsportsmanlike. After about two hours of rushing around in the dark, I call it a night.

Day 2: Zero Birds, zero dollars. My second night is also a wash, and I wonder whether I’m ever going to actually capture one. I’ve told management of all the false flags and hoarding, and they ask me to both mark them missing on the app and augment that with screenshots, written descriptions, and locations. The “missing” button on the app is often unresponsive, and soon my phone is filled with screenshots of empty locations. Instead of making easy money, I’m just snitching on neighbors. What fun. I get a brisk hour walk in, though, so … fitness!

Day 3: First Bird! $5! I see a Bird pop up around the corner and dash out quickly in my sandals. I get to it literally seconds before a guy pulls up in a truck. As I wait for the finicky app to capture the bird, my signal pings off all the scooters he has collected but not correctly captured in his truck already. “Oh yeah, they’re mine, it’s all good,” he tells me. Later, when I tell management about those flags still twinkling on the map, they say that it’s another case of fraud. Although they say they take fraud “very seriously,” I have no idea what they do with the information after that. Chargers interviewed by the Atlantic say that “bad behavior has become commonplace and punishment is unevenly enforced.”

Day 4: Three Birds, $25. (A high-value Bird pops up on the street outside and nets me $15, with two other regular ones beside it!) It’s the weekend! Cheerful Bird riders are draining their batteries everywhere. For a novice like me, this is a big help. Instead of having to compete with cartels of pickup trucks doing an evening sweep of the neighborhood, I manage to pick up a few Birds as they show up sporadically throughout the afternoon. After a slow start, I feel like I’m getting the hang of this.

Day 5: Three Birds, $15. When dropping off my charged scooters at a nearby Nest, I bump into a woman returning a single scooter. “I spent two and a half hours looking last night, and this is the only one I found. I’ve been doing this for two days and am quitting already. This sucks,” she tells me.

Days 6–8: Four Birds total, $20. It’s barely one a day, but I’ve hit my stride. I know where my neighborhood’s regular hoarders are, so I don’t bother chasing those bogeys. And I know that Birds allegedly waiting on busy corners have likely been scooped up long ago. Instead of rushing at every flag I see, I look for the ones in unusual spots that might have been missed by others.

Day: 9 One Bird, four decoys, $5. I start recording the number of false positives I waste time tracking down to compare the Birds allegedly available on the app to reality. I now carry a headlamp and reflective strips each night, along with my helmet. The Birds have bright headlamp lights that are automatically turned on for the paying customers. But if you’re a charger working for Bird, picking up their scooters in the dark, they don’t turn on the headlights for you.

Day 10: One Bird, 10 decoys, $5. I continue to notify Bird of the high volume of fraud cases, sharing screenshots and location notes. Responses from management range from nonexistent to terse. They occasionally complain about the detailed reports; evidently it’s a bit of a headache for them. Only one Bird staffer, “Owl,” follows up with thanks and encouragement.

Day 11: One Bird, five decoys, $5. Bird starts sending out motivational texts to chargers every night. The first tip is to mark scooters as “missing” via the app if they’re not in the right location. This button works maybe 30 percent of the time. The rest of the time, there’s no response from the buggy app. It also burns through my battery like a fever. After an hour of searching in the dark, I need to recharge my own phone more urgently than the Birds.

Day 12: Three Birds, four decoys, $15. I see a truck full of uncaptured scooters pinging along the map in real time. The news seems to excite Owl. Maybe Bird has to accommodate the rampant cheating because honest chargers quickly lose interest in the rigged game? (In a statement, Bird spokesman Kenneth Baer told Slate, “It is very important to us that scooters are available to customers who want to use them. We’re working to ensure Birds are available and not being removed from the streets when they shouldn’t be. While we’ve had very few instances of hoarding, we thoroughly investigate reports of abuse and are continually working to provide consumers with an enjoyable ride.”)

Day 13: One Bird, eight decoys, $5. I see a flag at a nearby coffee shop and run over. To my surprise, there’s a scooter right there as advertised! But it’s missing the QR code sticker. I puzzle over it for a few seconds before a man walks out to wave me off: It’s his private scooter. (It turns out that the app signal I had chased was just another ghost.) He tells me he bought it off Amazon for $500 and loves it. It folds up when he’s on the train and holds a charge for days. I’m tempted. They may be a pain to charge, but the scooters are delightful machines to ride.

Day 14: One Bird, nine decoys, $5. I bump into a friend a few blocks away while I’m lurking late at night in the alley behind his apartment trying to track a hoarded Bird. “Oh yeah, our neighbor works for them,” he says, “He probably has one upstairs.” I flag it “missing” and move on.

Day 15: Three Birds, five decoys, $15. I move out early and log a number of places where rentable scooters are actually already locked away indoors. Later that night, I return and see them marked for charging. It appears that hoarders are just scooping them up whenever convenient during the day, thereby reducing the rolling stock that Bird is trying to rent, and then making a buck off the company later that night. It’s much easier than racing through the dark to beat other chargers to the scooters at the end of the day. For a buck you can ride a nearby scooter to your back door after lunch and charge it later that night for $5. I’m not an MBA, but the math seems to work out.

Day 16: One Bird, five decoys, $5. Bird has 100 employees and more than $100 million in investment. So the questionnaire it sends today to select potential safety ambassadors, who will somehow advocate for wearing helmets and riding responsibly, is a puzzle: It’s an unsecured and editable Google spreadsheet in which all of the responses are publicly visible. I see multiple email addresses and responses from strangers. Bird resends the link later in the day after “fixing” it, but nothing has changed. Helpful responders update the form to include options like “Bird get organized you need help” and “Who’s going to let them know this is editable? A. Me B. Other ______” Bird pulls the link and later sends a third one. I ignore it.

Day 17: One Bird, zero decoys, 66 cents. I almost ran over one driving home, so I threw it in the car and called it a night. The schedule is wearing me down a bit, so I decide to sleep in and release the scooter late. In theory, Bird deducts from your payout in a prorated fashion for tardiness, but I have no idea what the penalty might be. I try to drop the scooter off around 9 a.m., but the app totally fails and I can’t electronically release my scooter. I’m stuck with it until later in the day. I don’t get paid for it at all until I inquire, at which point I receive an “adjusted” payment of 66 cents. Every damaged bird, faulty app problem, or payment issue has to be adjudicated through the app, where they have all the records and you just have an undifferentiated string of texts penned by coyly pseudonymous birds.

At the end of it all I made about $125 over two weeks, for roughly 10–15 hours of nighttime effort and a few more minutes each day dropping them off in the early morning. I captured 24 Birds and noted perhaps 70–80 cases of hoarding or fraud in the same time period. Instead of being a fun activity, it disrupted my evenings and highlighted petty cheating all around the neighborhood. Instead of a pleasant walk, I spent hours tapping away at my phone in the dark while aggravated. After two weeks of this, I returned the charging cables and put the Mi Electric Scooter on my Amazon wish list instead.

Update, May 25, 2018: Bird sent an email to Chargers on Friday announcing that after receiving “feedback about the good, the bad, and the not-so-great parts about being a Charger,” it will now require that a Charger “capture” a Bird before moving it. If Chargers move the Birds first, they may be blocked from capturing them.