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Who Charges All Those Electric Scooters? Follow A Nocturnal 'Juicer'

Mar 13, 2019
Originally published on March 13, 2019 9:19 am

Some people love electric scooters. Some people hate them. And some people charge them — for money.

By day, Joel Kirzner is a consultant in Arlington, Va. But when he wraps up work in the office, he pulls out his phone and checks multiple scooter apps to see what's available nearby.

If there are scooters low on battery, they'll show up in the map on his phone. And if he can find the scooter in real life (and beat any rival chargers to the punch), he'll earn a few bucks for each one he charges at home.

"It's like Pokémon Go and you make money," he says.

On a recent evening, he sees two scooters up for grabs just around the corner from his office. He hops in his Subaru Impreza and starts collecting.

Electric scooters are hot right now. Lime and Bird, the two biggest companies, are valued at some $2 billion each. You can rent scooters by the minute from one or both companies in more than 100 cities across the country — from Abilene, Texas, to Tacoma, Wash.

And both companies rely on independent contractors such as Kirzner to keep the wheels rolling, by taking the scooters to their homes and charging them in ordinary outlets. In the process, chargers fulfill another key need: They help move scooters from out-of-the-way locations to hot spots where they'll find more riders.

Lime calls the chargers "juicers." Bird has its own puns: The chargers "capture" Birds, and then release them to "nests" — specific locations chosen by the company — in the morning.

This is largely nocturnal work: Some scooters don't become available for charging until after 9 p.m., and they're supposed to be back on the roads early the next morning so they're available for commuters.

Starting after sunset on a recent chilly night, Kirzner collects 12 scooters in quick succession near his office building before heading home to charge them. He's collecting Birds tonight — there were more available than Limes — and earning $4 or $5 for each, including a bonus for collecting multiple scooters.

The bounty offered per scooter varies based on location, level of charge and how long a scooter has been standing idle (a sign it might be in a less-desirable location). And in general, the bounties have gone down over time. For instance, Bird used to pay up to $20 for scooters that had been waiting the longest. But unscrupulous chargers would take scooters off the street and hoard them while their value increased; now, Kirzner says, $20 for a charge is all but unheard of.

The declining rates have reduced some of the previously fierce competition to snag scooters. Many people just aren't willing to hit the road for smaller payouts — especially on a cold, windy March night.

Andy Castillo, who used to collect Lime scooters in Washington, D.C., isn't charging anymore. He used to go out with his mom, who's retired — "it was a way for us to spend time together," he says — and they'd fill up his pickup with scooters.

"When I first started, it was $6 a scooter," Castillo says. "They lowered the price recently to $4, and I did it once or twice after that and it wasn't as exciting."

Kirzner says it's still worth it for him to charge, especially since he rarely goes out of his way, collecting and redistributing right near his office and his home.

"It's like picking money off the street," he says, when he finishes one pickup and spots another scooter, worth $5 per charge, available just across the street.

Joel Kirzner charges Bird scooters on his patio in Arlington, Va., on March 4. He routinely picks up scooters after his workday is finished and charges them overnight for the companies Bird and Lime.
Camila Domonoske / NPR

Of course, it's not that easy. Once they're all stacked in his hatchback — he has a very precise system for squeezing in up to a dozen Birds — he takes the scooters home and plugs them in on his patio. His chargers are neatly organized, mounted to pieces of plywood with color-coordinated zip ties.

They'll charge for hours, and he pays for the electricity. (The effect on his electric bill is negligible, Kirzner says.) The next morning, he'll wake up early to get the scooters out on the road, deposited in locations preselected by Bird, before he heads to his day job.

Kirzner says that since he started charging in September, he's earned more than $9,000.

He also cautions that this job is not very reliable — not like, say, driving for Uber or Lyft, or other options in the gig economy. Some nights he might come up empty-handed. And in some cities, Lime or Bird have folded up shop and disappeared overnight.

It's also not clear if the companies will continue to rely on contractors. Other companies, such as Lyft, use employees to charge their electric scooters. Kirzner wonders how it can possibly be cost-effective to pay him $50 or $60 for a couple hours of work that a full-time employee might do for $15 an hour.

More speculatively, some analysts suspect robots might be coming for these jobs — robot scooters, that is.

"What people are talking about already is having these things be autonomous," says Horace Dediu, the influential analyst who coined the term "micromobility" to describe small electric vehicles like scooters.

A three-wheeled or self-balancing scooter could "crawl around on the sidewalk at, like, 3 miles an hour," he says. "Maybe during the night they'll reposition themselves to a charging station. Now, either you have a person there who plugs them in, or they could hover above what is essentially an inductive spot ... so they could self-charge."

"So you'll have these these sort of armies of scooters rolling around the city at night roaming to try to find a charging station," Dediu theorizes. "I think that's not crazy as it sounds."

After all, payouts to chargers such as Kirzner represent a substantial cost for the scooter companies — which are still burning through money as they expand, and haven't yet managed to turn a profit.

But for now, chargers play an integral role in the scooter economy.

In the chilly darkness, Kirzner carries his night's haul from his car and neatly lines them up. He says he makes decent pay at his 9-to-5 job. But a side hustle helps, he says.

"I have expensive rent, expensive car payments, cable bills," he says. "You talk about the disappearing middle class — I feel like I'm in that zone where I can live fine, comfortably. But if you want to have a little more financial stability, this definitely helps."

And he'd rather do this than drive for Uber or Lyft, he says. It puts fewer miles on his car — and there are no drunk people to deal with.

"The Birds don't talk back to me," he says. "They tweet every so often — you know, beeping — but other than that, they're pretty nice."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Walk through an American city, and there's an increasing chance you will need to maneuver around an electric scooter just parked there on the sidewalk. While driving, you pass people riding those scooters. They're for rent by the minute. They run on batteries, and those batteries are at the center of this story because somebody has to charge them. NPR's Camila Domonoske met a man who has a side hustle as he sleeps.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Joel Kirzner just finished watching the sunset from his 13th-floor office in Arlington, Va. His day job is over, but his evening gig is just beginning. He pulls out his phone and opens his scooter apps. People use these apps to ride scooters during the day. But it's night. Kirzner is hunting for scooters that need to be charged.

JOEL KIRZNER: It's like a "Pokemon Go," and you make money.

DOMONOSKE: He heads down to the parking garage and hops in his car, a burgundy Subaru Impreza.

KIRZNER: Yes. We have two scooters that are supposed to be right over there.

DOMONOSKE: The scooters are standing on a sidewalk just around the corner. Kirzner can make $4 on each. The amount varies based on how low the battery is or how long the scooter's been left there. He hops out, scans the scooters and puts them in the back of his compact hatchback.

KIRZNER: Now, remember, we just left my office building, and that took around 30 seconds. So that's $8 in a matter of one minute. So I think that's a pretty good deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SHUTTING)

KIRZNER: All right. Next one.

DOMONOSKE: Kirzner is just getting started.

KIRZNER: There's another one right across the street. It's too easy tonight. This is perfect.

DOMONOSKE: Kirzner picks up electric scooters from two companies, Lime and Bird. Scooters are hot. These companies are both valued at billions of dollars, and they rely on gig economy workers like him to charge their scooters.

KIRZNER: And it should beep in five, four, three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOOTER BEEPING)

KIRZNER: Beep.

DOMONOSKE: Some people charge a few scooters a night. Others charge dozens.

KIRZNER: All right. So that's three. So we have made $12.

DOMONOSKE: Back in the car, Kirzner puts on his go-to scooter-charging song.

KIRZNER: Let's go find our next Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED A DOLLAR")

ALOE BLACC: (Singing) I need a dollar, dollar. Dollar is what I need. Hey, hey.

DOMONOSKE: Kirzner says that over the last six months, he's made more than $9,000 at this side hustle. From the scooter company's perspective, Kirzner's not just charging scooters. He's also retrieving them from out-of-the-way locations, like one that's practically under a bush and hasn't been ridden in four days.

KIRZNER: They can drop them off wherever the heck they want to take 'em. You know? I mean, I've - it's right over there.

DOMONOSKE: The next morning, he'll put them in a better spot. Lime scooters are green, but the Birds are black. They beep and flash to help Kirzner find them in the dark. The electric scooters stack up in his hatchback. He's got a system for squeezing them in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOOTERS BEING STACKED)

DOMONOSKE: His record is 14 in one load. Some nights, he does several runs.

KIRZNER: If I want to go crazy tonight, I can capture 30 Birds tonight. There's a ton of Birds right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

KIRZNER: Let's go, buddy.

DOMONOSKE: A few months ago, there was fierce competition to pick up these scooters. But it's cold and windy tonight, and the companies are paying less per scooter than they used to. So there aren't as many rivals to contend with. After collecting a dozen scooters and wrestling the last one into position...

KIRZNER: There we go.

DOMONOSKE: ...Kirzner heads home and starts to carry the scooters to his patio. He's 42, a consultant with a background in architecture. He's got a good job. He says his income is decent, but he's glad to have a side gig.

KIRZNER: I have expensive rent, expensive car payments, cable bills. You know? You know, they talk about the, like, you know, disappearing middle class. I feel like I'm in that zone where I can live fine, comfortably. But, you know, you want to have a little more financial stability, this definitely helps.

DOMONOSKE: He runs an extension cord from his kitchen to his patio to power up the scooters. His chargers are neatly organized.

KIRZNER: I feel like these Birds are almost my kids at this point. You know? And I've been taking care of them so much.

DOMONOSKE: The scooters will take a few hours to charge. Kirzner says the impact on his electric bill is negligible. Before 7 a.m. tomorrow, Kirzner will unplug his flock, load them back up and neatly place the charged-up scooters in spots preselected by Bird. And then he'll head to his day job, where his co-workers have a nickname for him. They call him the Bird Man. Camila Domonoske, NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED A DOLLAR")

ALOE BLACC: (Singing) Hey, hey. Well, I need a dollar, dollar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.