Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

Urban scooters and collateral ecosystems: bird hunters

A number of recent articles discuss the economic ecosystem that has arisen around the charging of the thousands of electric scooters that have invaded the streets of many US cities. The hordes of teenagers searching for scooters to make some money charging them and returning them to the streets in the morning is mainly the result of the practices of Bird, the company led by former Uber executive Travis VanderZanden, which in addition to being the pioneer of the model, the only pure player and with the highest visibility in terms of media coverage, is trying to prompt a debate on regulating their use and how make them a sustainable and civic urban transportation option.

The ideas put forward by Bird, also used by other competitors such as Lime, which manages both scooters and bicycles, seek to solve the question of the nightly collection of scooters for recharging and checking. Both companies pay people to become Chargers in the case of Bird or Juicers in Lime’s) to use their own vehicles at night to locate scooters using the app, take them home, charge their batteries and deliver them the next morning to designated spaces. This freelance approach can be combined with company employees using vans to also collect scooters (around 40 in the case of Lime).

We now find ourselves with a growing social phenomenon among young people, dubbed “bird hunters”, in search of additional income. As part of a “game” that has been compared to Pokemon Go, the scooters are given a value based on their state of charge and location, and depending on the number located and charged, it’s apparently possible to earn up to $600 in one night, in exchange for a fairly low amount of electricity and, above all, the time and effort involved.

Chargers and juicers are paid directly through their bank accounts and also compete against each other to find the highest-rated scooters, risking ambushes when they try to pick up vehicles that have been left as lures in out-of-the-way areas, or when they come up against criminals who steal the vehicles of break them up to sell the parts. Messages on social networks warn bird hunters against going into certain neighborhoods and to carry defensive tasers or pepper sprays working in groups to protect themselves and then sharing profits.

This is just another example of the sharing economy based on taking advantage of idle cycles: people willing to invest time, some effort, as well as using their vehicles and a small amount of electricity to earn some extra cash. We may well see companies lower their rates, but even so, many chargers affirm that, within reasonable limits and even if the incentives were reduced by half, the activity is still worthwhile, not just financially, but from a gaming and even civic perspective.

The viability of urban scooters has been questioned and compared to the excesses of dockless bicycle companies in China, while others have ridiculed their use, alluding to their toy-like nature; but the fact is that more and more people are using them in more and more cities, while companies like Bird and Lime continue to attract investment in consecutive financing rounds. At the same time, creating jobs by using the self-employed to charge them could help mitigate some of the problems already associated with them.

The key, at this point, is the amount of daily use required to make a rate of one dollar per trip plus fifteen cents a minute viable in comparison to paying people to collect them and charge them overnight, along with losses from theft and maintenance. But as other sectors and companies have often shown, turning a profit can often be second to growth.

This article was previously published on Forbes.

(En español, aquí)



On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger (in English here and in Spanish at enriquedans.com)