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.
Meanwhile, the “gig economy” that’s blossomed over the last few years, in which private individuals offer themselves up as anything from a lunch delivery service to a taxi driver seems to be faltering. A recent report from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research suggests rideshare drivers working for companies like Uber and Lyft are making significantly less than minimum wage after taking expenses into account. With a flat payout of $5 per unit offered to scooter searchers scouring the city in search of charges, can anyone turn a profit doing this?
Things actually go pretty well on the afternoon my chargers arrive. Excited to pound the pavement, I cross the river from the Midway District into Mission Beach, where the Lime app, with Juicer mode engaged, is brimming with bright green $5 icons. Within a half-hour I’ve located, unlocked, and stuffed four dead scooters into the back of my dilapidated work Jeep.
It turns out the scooters play the same delightful “Hi, let’s go for a ride!” tune when you’re picking them up as a worker. The biggest challenge is wrangling them into the perpetually-malfunctioning elevator once I’m back at my condo.
The wheels abruptly fall off. My alarm starts screeching at 6 a.m., which is about two hours too early. After being the one responsible for shuttling our daughter to school throughout her kindergarten and elementary years, I’ve been spoiled in that she’s been able to walk a couple blocks to middle school and that my wife has mostly taken over delivery duties since she started high school last fall.
Regardless, I’m determined to seize the opportunity to get back to starting my days early, and I awkwardly maneuver my four charges down to the garage and into the car. Being that no one in their right mind (not looking at you, surfers) is headed to the beach at this hour on Tuesday morning, it’s a quick half-hour turnaround to drop them off across the street from Belmont Park and snag my daughter to deposit her in front of Point Loma High a half-hour early, which is entirely too early for her tastes.
With time to kill before my day begins, I decide to fire up the charger app and see if I can harvest a few Limes. I’m first directed to a warehouse district wedged against the freeway between Mission Hills and the airport, where my scooter is easy to find and collect.
From there, it’s off to Balboa Park, where my next assignment has been tossed down a dirt embankment about 30 feet below the road near Marston Point (the south end of the 6th Avenue side of the park) a few dozen yards south of a homeless encampment. After spending about ten minutes struggling with the loose dirt footing, I manage to drag the scooter up and out of the canyon. But the app refuses to unlock it, and once the wheels start turning on the way to my car it threatens to call the police on me.
Customer service is little help — first, there’s no phone contact in-app, just an option to send an email (I’ll learn later that these messages are directed to a single inbox aimed more at supporting consumers than workers, even if they’re initiated from the Juicer side of the app). After rooting around on the website I find a phone number, but all the operator can advise is that I give up and try to find another scooter somewhere else. Even if I’d been successful here, the $5 payout for my efforts would’ve made profiting from this exercise a dubious proposition at best.
From there it’s off to Golden Hill, where the scooter I find in an alley behind C Street has seen better days. The rear fender has been smashed off and is dangling by a cable, the grips are missing, and the bell has been smashed (it’ll turn out that only about half of the scooters I’ll encounter in the coming weeks still retain functional bells). Still, it unlocks, which means I’ll at least get paid for this one.
Next stop is in Barrio Logan, where my charge is in the walled and locked courtyard of an apartment complex, unreachable. I report the situation to Lime, and I’m off to the trolley station at 12th and Imperial, where I wander around like a crazy person looking for the scooter that’s clearly marked but impossible to find, even eliciting a few “You okay, bro?” expressions of concern from passers-by until I realize that the app has some important details on offer that I’ve been missing. It turns out the phantom I’m chasing hasn’t been checked out or even sent a tracking signal back to home base for a month now, yet it still shows up on the app as needing a charge. I use the trouble alert to mark it as missing, but more than a week later it’ll still pop up, luring unsuspecting new Juicers.
I head to Seaport Village where, upon closer inspection of the map, the precise location of my next assignment is about three yards north of the terminus of a small pier that hosts the weekly Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. Once again I open up the alert function of the app, which is apparently so prepared for scooters to be parked underwater that this is actually a suggestion for how to report units that are “unsafe to access.”
Dejected after almost two hours on the road with only $10 worth of scooters to charge up (and probably close to $10 in gas burned), I head for home. Refusing to give up, I luck into a pair parked within a few steps of one another on Harbor Island. Now, at least I have enough to put all four of my charger packs to use.
Later that evening, I’ll drop them back off at the same Mission Beach delivery site as before, but I won’t even bother looking for a set to charge that night.
I’m determined to make this work, and I think I’ve cracked the system.
First, going out hunting for scooters early in the morning is a waste — there are too many other Juicers with the same idea of combining their morning dropoff with an easy pickup, meaning the rides available will be far-flung and often out of reach.
I’ve also (mostly) solved the phantom scooter issue. I’ll pay attention to the “last ride” date, and if it’s anything more than 12 hours old I’m going to assume someone has gone after the assignment before me and failed — there’s probably a reason for that. From there, I’ll drill down on the map to its’ finest level of detail. This helps me not to bother with units reporting they’re inside buildings or apartment complexes, and not once do I bite on the scooter at the bottom of Mission Bay across the street from where I make frequent deliveries of fresh charges.
Later in my experiment, I’ll realize that I can set off an alarm designed to help would-be riders and Juicers locate units that aren’t immediately visible. This will be a tool I’ll use to torment idiots selfish enough to bogart scooters with dead batteries inside their apartments when I’m up poring over copy at 1 a.m., or brushing my teeth at 6 the next morning. I imagine their displeasure being rudely awoken after sending me on a snipe hunt earlier in the day and smile.
The best time to go day-hunting is early afternoon. There are enough scooters that have been used throughout the day and run themselves down below 30 percent (the daytime charge rate that triggers a pickup opportunity) that you’ve got a good chance of snagging three or four with an hour’s effort or less.
From there, my day charges need to be topped up to above 95 percent by 7:30— this gives me time to dive back over the bridge into the MB/PB area, make my drop, and wait for the clock to tick over from 7:59 to 8:00. This is when the magic happens.
After 8:00, Lime releases every scooter with a charge level below 95 percent back into the Juicer pool, creating a mad dash by the hordes of chargers who routinely flood the streets. Since the same flat fee is paid for charging a nearly-full scooter as a nearly empty one, it’s imperative to grab at least four with more than half of their battery remaining; I’m going for eight overall, and by the time 9 o’clock rolls around the streets once littered in my app with little green dollar signs will be nearly empty once again.
Heading home, the already-charged rides go onto the chargers first — they’ll be ready to go within a couple hours, meaning I can make a late-night drop while the second batch charges overnight. Making three drops a day, I’m able to charge 11 or 12 scooters per pay period, clearing a whopping $55-60. More importantly, I hit my $150 bonus target after just a couple of days of doing this.
I embarked on my experiment looking for a couple of things. I found plenty of damaged and misplaced bikes and scooters, sure, in numbers about equally distributed by the prevalence of brand in the areas I traveled to. Much of the intent seems malicious — one day I harvested two scooters on which the brake lines had been intentionally cut, and numerous bicycles around town have had the locking and GPS tracking mechanisms destroyed in an attempt to subvert the payment system.
What I didn’t encounter, however, was the online vitriol against bike-sharing spilling over into the real world. On my third day, a Canadian couple wandering through Seaport Village was the first of several groups to flag me down asking how the system worked as I prepared to load a dead scooter. They offered only comments on how innovative this new method of transit seemed.
The next evening, a young woman whose shift at a local bar had ended shortly after midnight approached me as I was placing fresh scooters outside Belmont. I told her how to sign up for the app and, as I was leaving the parking lot, saw her zipping off on one of my rides toward the car she said she’d parked two miles away.
“This is awesome!” she smiled and waved from the curb as I pulled out onto Mission Bay Drive.
Unloading early one morning at a bayside park at the end of Fanuel Street in PB, a middle-aged man walking his dog put me through the now-familiar pace of questioning. Despite living at the epicenter of the bikeshare boom, he simply remarked that it was “good that these things were getting people outside more.”
“But how do you deal with the competition?” he asked, nodding to another bikeshare worker unloading a flock of Bird scooters on the other side of the bike rack where I was about to drop my Limes.
As the dog-walker continued on his route, “James” (not really), the Bird man, and I struck up a conversation. It turns out workers for Bird and Lime have a lot in common, starting with the puns.
“Yeah, they do that to us too,” James laughs when I explain the “harvesting” and “juicing” of Limes. Bird chargers “capture” their scooters and later “release” them back into the wild — their designated drop-off sites are officially referred to as “nests” by the company.
We compare notes on pay — Bird works on a sliding scale based on how badly their scooters need a boost. Base rates start as low as $5, but can rise to $20 per unit for rides in desperate need of charging. Even with the relatively low flat $5 payout for Limes (which has occasionally and inexplicably risen to $7 before falling again in recent days), James is considering switching allegiances.
“They’ll release a batch to chargers at 8 p.m., then another at 9 p.m. and maybe more at 10,” he explains. “And the competition is so heavy sometimes there’ll be four, five guys hovering around prime scooters minutes before that release, ready to fight each other to pick up the prime targets.”
At least James didn’t have to pay for his chargers — Bird initially gave him three to get started, then sent him three more once he proved himself as a reliable user of the charging app. I’m still waiting to see if my “Power Juicer” status will result in Lime offering me (or offering to sell me) more chargers than the four I began with.
Despite the seemingly tight margins, it seems there are more than enough San Diegans willing to work with the bikeshare companies.
Time to do some number crunching to see what I’ve actually made.
In my first seven days juicing, working at least part-time every day, I’ve cleared $400 — that includes my $150 bonus, so that drills down to $250 for charging 50 scooters. Delivering four scooters at a time, and spending roughly 40 minutes per drop, I’ve spent 8.6 hours “serving” my Limes. As noted above, “harvests” can range from easy and fruitful — ugh, am I getting sucked into the puns here?— to difficult and time-consuming. My notes show I’ve spent about 22 hours on the road or on foot finding my charges.
For even numbers, let’s say I’ve made $250 in 30 hours — that works out to a profit of $8.33 per hour. But I’ve also spent $55 on gas, bringing my profit down to $195. If I’d have been tracking my mileage (I haven’t), I could write off some of this cost on my taxes, but I’ve still got self-employment taxes of 7.6% (the portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes your employer would normally pick up if you were a true employee), deducting $19 from my income as compared to if I’d have earned it at a regular job.
Final numbers: $176 profit in 30 hours, for a pay rate of $5.87 per hour. The scooters I collect in later days with a $7 payout instead of $5, and the skills I’ve developed that teach me to only go after low-hanging fruit (again!) while ignoring the difficult assignments mean that I’d probably make more going forward, but I still doubt it’s enough to scratch the floor of the state’s minimum wage.
It’s nonsensical, but I’ve continued making charging runs here and there after I cash in the bonus, but not nearly as aggressively as during that two-day, three-delivery stretch. Mostly I’m looking for some exercise — I like to walk a few miles a day when I have the time, and the added bonus of picking up a few bucks strolling the beach area isn’t bad, but I’m not going to burn gas going on a mad dash back and forth across town in search of elusive little green dollar signs.
Regardless of whether my Power Juicer status nets me some free chargers or the opportunity to buy more, I think I’m probably going to take a pass. Unless the economics of bikeshare work make a pretty dramatic change, or there’s profit to be made in selling charging bricks to quickly-disillusioned new recruits, I’ve got to imagine more people will quickly arrive at the same conclusion.
To read about this week's Bird scooter story, click here.