Whether gaudy orange (Mobike), canary yellow (ofo), nearly-neon green (LimeBike), even more orange (Uber-owned Jump electric bikes), or a comparatively unimposing matte black (Bird electric scooters), dockless bikeshare has descended upon San Diego’s streets. Depending on whether you’ve become ensnared in the appeal of cheap, disposable transit, you either love or hate them.
Seeking a better understanding of what really makes this newest corner of the ridesharing economy tick, I decided to respond to an ad recruiting freelance workers to collect, recharge, and deliver electric scooters for one of the dockless networks. Luckily, it turns out they’ll hire just about anyone with a car and some time to kill.
LimeBike is big on punny names — you don’t pick up scooters, you “harvest” limes. Then you take them home and, instead of charging them, you’ll “juice” the rides before “serving” them to the public at a designated drop point, all of which seem to be confined to Downtown, Mission/Pacific Beach, and North Park, though the scooters seem to find ways to travel far beyond their home markets.
The hiring process is simple: fill out a form with your contact information and you’ll be prompted to provide bank account numbers for direct deposit, paid daily. From there, complete a quick online training — don’t damage the scooters getting them in and out of your car, charge them all the way up, leave them where you’re told, don’t block sidewalks or businesses. Got it? Okay, you’re hired.
One last thing — you’ve got to buy the chargers. Sold in packs of four and resembling a laptop power cable but with bricks about twice the size, prospective Juicers will be twenty-something dollars out of pocket before they can get to work. The online store is out of stock for the first several days I attempt to place my order, a testament either to the number of people willing to take on this kind of work or the fact that the company was unprepared for the rollout. Evidence in favor of the latter hypothesis is the fact that the Juicer program wasn’t announced until the scooters were already on the streets.
It’ll be three weeks from when I first applied with LimeBike before my chargers finally arrive, but in the meantime I set out to familiarize myself with the bike-sharing network by using some of the actual bikes.
Finding a ride is little problem if you’re pretty much anywhere in urban San Diego and not picky — the Lime system alone shows more than 1600 bikes, scooters, and electric bikes deployed throughout the city, and a good handful have made their way out east to La Mesa, El Cajon, and even Lakeside.
What you’re riding, however, may be a bit of a mixed bag. Scooter and lightning bolt icons on a GPS-enabled phone app tell you where to find electric-powered vehicles, but follow the trail to a bike icon and you might end up with a single-speed model parked at the bottom of a hill. Whether you’ll find a more user-friendly three- or eight-speed model is a bit of a crapshoot, as is the condition of the bike.
Having come into the system with skepticism, my results did little to firm up my opinion to one degree or another. Wanting to ride a bike from the Sports Arena area into Ocean Beach to meet my wife and daughter after their nail appointment to grab lunch, I found a relatively clean three-speed. Adjusting the seat and scanning a QR code on the handlebars took all of two minutes, and a cheery tune reminiscent of a ‘90s-era midi ringtone sent me on my way.
A few days later, I had to pick a car up from my mechanic in Barrio Logan. The single-speed I grabbed three blocks from the Sports Arena had a wobbly front end I was able to adjust by giving the headset a hand-tightening (note: these bikes are built to be plentiful and cheap, meaning features avid cyclists haven’t seen in years like threaded headsets, drum brakes, and utilitarian aluminum frames that make steel bikes from a big box store seem comparatively lightweight), but the seat post was stuck and I pedaled most of the way to the Old Town trolley station standing up. On my ride, I passed a Lime that had been stripped of its wheels and grips, then tossed into the bushes, and an ofo near where Rosecrans crosses under I-5 that looked like it’d gone head-up with a semi truck.
The first LimeBike I encountered hopping off the trolley at the 12th and Imperial station downtown was covered in a mysterious sticky substance, so I kept walking in search of one of the scooters I’d agreed to “juice.” Less than a block later I came across a pair and went through the now-routine process of scanning the code and waiting for an unlock on the one showing a higher battery level. When the headlight and tail light popped on, I figured I was good to go.
Nope. Instead of the friendly music from the bikes, the scooter began screaming at me.
“Stop! Please unlock me to ride me, or I’ll call the police!” a robotic woman hiding somewhere in the fender shrilly intoned. “Please unlock me or I’ll call the police!” At least the aggression is tempered with a “please.”
I’m as doubtful of the scooter lady’s ability to contact law enforcement as I am police interest in investigating free-scooting scofflaws, but nonetheless I decide to walk the last mile to my mechanic.
I finally get my hands on those elusive chargers the evening of May 1, about five days after I’ve officially become a Juicer, which apparently happened when they first shipped. This timing is important, because if I manage to juice 30 Limes in the first 15 days of work I’ll also bring down a $150 recruitment bonus.
It’s worth noting here that the economics of utilizing independent contractors to maintain a bike-sharing network is questionable from both ends. While Lime has raised about $130 million in investor funding to date, that’s dwarfed by local (and global) competitors Mobike ($900 million) and ofo ($1.3 billion). None of the companies are reportedly turning a profit.