Electric Scooter Charger Culture Is Out of Control
“Bird hunting” has become a pastime and a side hustle for teens and young professionals, but for some it’s a cutthroat business.
Every afternoon around 4 p.m., when school lets out, Brandon, an 18-year-old high-school senior in Los Angeles who asked to be referred to only by his first name, goes “Bird hunting.” He heads for his minivan and, on the drive home, he’ll swing through convenient neighborhoods, picking up about 13 Bird electric scooters along the way, tossing them into the back of his car.
“I have a whole system,” he says. “I’ll go home, put the 13 I initially caught on the chargers. They’ll charge for about three hours until around 7 or 8 p.m.”—when Bird makes more scooters available for charger pickup. “Then I’ll go back out.”
Over the course of the next few hours, Brandon loops around his Santa Monica, California, neighborhood collecting as many scooters as possible. He brings back his bounty and, as his parents sleep, neatly sets them up to charge in batches overnight.
The next morning he wakes up early, eats breakfast, and drops them off in groups of three at designated Bird Nests, designated pickup areas for scooters, on his way to school. For performing this service, Bird pays Brandon, a contract worker, up to several hundred dollars a night. On one particularly successful night, Brandon brought home $600.
Bird is a scooter-sharing company that launched in 2017 and has been dubbed the “Uber of scooters.” Its goal is to alleviate congestion and allow people an easy way to travel quickly for short distances of just a few miles. Riders can locate and unlock scooters using the company’s smartphone app, and after paying the $1 unlocking fee are charged 15 cents per minute during use.
Birds are available in a growing number of American cities including Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Scottsdale, Arizona; Washington D.C.; and Atlanta. The scooters are all battery-powered and dockless, so they can be picked up or dropped off anywhere.
But when night falls, what most riders don’t realize is that the scooters themselves are charged by a contract workforce. These people are known as “Bird hunters” or “chargers,” and they’re growing exponentially in number.
Registering to become a charger isn’t hard. Unlike Uber or most ride-sharing services, Bird doesn’t require a background check or any kind of complicated registration procedure. It takes a few simple steps including registering your address and providing personal information, tax information, and bank-account information so you can get paid via direct deposit. If your application is approved, within a matter of days Bird will mail you three charging packs to get started. Charging a Bird doesn’t require a ton of electricity, so minus the labor cost, charging a few scooters overnight is essentially free—especially if you live in a large apartment building and can do so in your bike room.
As Birds and comparable scooter-sharing services continue to expand, charging has become a popular way for high-schoolers, college students, and young professionals to earn easy money.
Wait for it...— Harry Campbell (@TheRideshareGuy) April 13, 2018
Video cred: Katey S. pic.twitter.com/Cs30ORUcLX
“Charging scooters for Bird is like Pokémon Go, but when you get paid for finding Pokémon,” says Nick Abouzeid, a 21-year-old charger in San Francisco. Several nights a week after work, he and his girlfriend go on walks around the city, collecting scooters and bringing them back to his apartment building to charge in the basement.
“It’s really fun to grab a few scooters, charge them, and in the end it pays for a fancy dinner,” Abouzeid says. “It’s like a game and I would do it even if the prices were halved, which they probably will be.”
Like Pokémon Go, when you enter “charger mode” the Bird app displays a real-time map of Birds across your area that require charging. The reward for capturing and charging these Birds can range from $5 to $20 depending on how difficult the Bird is to locate—and some can be really hard to find. Bird chargers have described finding Birds in and under trash cans, down the side of a canyon, hidden in bushes, or tossed sideways on the side of the street.
“Finding the really hard ones is so awesome,” says Lucas, a young teenage Bird charger in L.A. who didn’t want his last name or his age listed since he technically hunts under his parents’ account. “It’s become a big trend at my high school. People are like, ‘Oh are you gonna charge tonight?’ I have friends send me Snapchats like, ‘I just got 18 in one night!’ or, ‘Look where I found this one.’ There’s definitely a sense of achievement in picking a lot of them up.”
“I think so many teens are doing it because it’s a really easy way to make a lot of money on the side,” says Brandon. “Everyone loves Bird so when you tell people you’re a Bird charger they’re like, ‘Whoa! That’s cool, how do I do that?’ No one thinks it’s lame. My friends and I are pretty much in the tech crew [at school], so we found out sooner. But now popular kids are asking how they can sign up and get Birds.”
Lucas says he goes out with friends nearly every night, and even when they don’t find tons of Birds, it’s still a fun, social activity. “It’s like a whole-city scavenger hunt,” he says. He even jokes that it would make a great date.
But while Bird hunting is fun and games for some, other chargers take the job much more seriously. Charging in some cities, like San Diego, has become a cutthroat competition between workers where every last dollar counts.
Hoarding in particular has become a problem in these crowded markets. Bird and other companies will pay a $20 reward for missing scooters, so some chargers simply keep the scooters in their garage until they’re reported missing by riders or the bounty goes up to $20, then claim the finder’s fees. Bird theoretically polices this behavior, and Brandon says he’s gotten a warning call from the company for hoarding, but the bad behavior has become commonplace and punishment is unevenly enforced.
At a WeWork and just saw someone bring their Bird scooter into the building and up the elevator.— Kevin Lee (@kevinleeme) March 29, 2018
Guess that’s one way to hoard and ensure that you’ll have a Bird scooter to rent / ride with by the end of the day.
Each scooter can also only be captured by one charger. In saturated markets, the race to quickly grab as many scooters as possible is fierce. “One time I pulled up to pick up a scooter, I got there maybe 10 seconds before the other guy did,” said one charger in San Diego. “He started yelling at me. He picked up a Bird scooter and started beating my car. I got the hell out of there.”
“As a scooter charger you’re a legitimate bounty hunter. Whoever finds the scooter first and scans it—it’s theirs and they’re in charge of it,” he added. “Anything that happens to it between the time that you capture it and turn it in is your responsibility, just as a bounty would be.”
Unfortunately, some never turn their bounty in. They steal the scooters and chop-shop them, piecing them out and selling the batteries for up to $50. “The Bird will chirp at you if you try to steal it, but they chirp so often that no one pays attention,” says Abouzeid. “No one would stop you or say anything. I can show you on the charger map which ones are stolen. The battery is always at 0 and they were last seen like 7 days ago.” Any time you try to move a Bird without unlocking it first, the chirping alarm will go off. A representative for Bird says widespread theft has not been a problem.
As the charging community grows, some Bird hunters have sought to reduce their competition in nefarious ways.
Several Facebook groups for chargers in different cities have cropped up. For one of them, in order to join, you’re asked to share a screenshot of your settings screen containing your login name, telephone number, and email. Rogue Bird hunters attempt to use this information to shut down your account or charge under your name with updated billing information.
Some vigilante Bird chargers who will stop at nothing to retrieve lost Birds and claim the $20 rewards have been known to falsely act as official representatives of the company. When they see a person hoarding a scooter or group of scooters in their garage via the app, they’ll show up at the offender’s house and demand they release the Birds into their care. “This only really works sometimes,” says one charger. “If the person knows what’s up they can say, ‘Actually you’re trespassing on private property.’”
Criminals and pickpockets have also begun to recognize Bird hunters as prime targets and can use the Birds to lure their prey to isolated areas.
One scooter charger said he has been nearly robbed on two occasions and that he now won’t retrieve scooters that are left in strange places, for instance, at the end of a dark alley. “I’d tell anyone getting into this to be safe,” he says. “I’d say to others: Bring mace or a taser because there’s a lot of crazy people out there, even the [chargers themselves]. I’ve had people yell at me, threaten me. It’s the Wild West.”
Still, interest in becoming a charger continues to rise. Harry Campbell, also known as the Ride-Share Guy, who covers the sharing economy on his site by the same name, says that if you get in early in a new market, there’s a lot of money to be made Bird hunting.
“It really reminds me of the buzz from when Uber came out,” he says. “There’s sort of a palpable interest right now in charging. I’ve talked to everyone from gig-economy workers who are getting involved to a real-estate agent to even a lawyer who was doing it part-time.”
Campbell’s article about how to sign up to become a Bird charger has been the number-one article on his site for the past 45 days, generating tens of thousands of page views.
“It feels like Bird just fell out of the sky over the past three weeks in Atlanta,” says Jake Schmutzler, a 26-year-old product manager. “I’ve never been attracted to a gig-economy thing because I work full time and I would hate to deal with gig-economy customers, but picking up scooters for 20 minutes at night and making money while I sleep sounds like a good side hustle. My roommate and I travel the BeltLine and they are everywhere. And it’s only going to get bigger.”
Lucas says everyone from his high school is getting in on it too. In the middle of our interview one friend texted him, “U wanna pool our money so we can rent a truck and charge Birds?” Brandon says that while he used to be mocked for the 2004 Toyota minivan he drove to school, his friends now commend its ability to transport large amounts of Birds.
But while some tech observers and Redditors debate the moral implications of the charging economy, Abouzeid says that becoming a Bird hunter can feel like a good deed, almost like cleaning up the neighborhood. “You see them lying around on the side of a sidewalk,” he says. “As a charger you can pick them up, you take them home, take care of them, and leave them in a nice little row in the morning, ready to go for people. It’s really satisfying.”
“I think it’s really fun,” says Lucas. “I’ll probably go charging this weekend.”