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The mad, twisted tale of the electric scooter craze

For Bird, Lime and Spin: Betrayal, clipped brake cables and chop shops. And that's just in San Francisco.

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A dead Bird.

Dara Kerr/CNET

For weeks, I'd been seeing trashed electric scooters on the streets of San Francisco. So I asked a group of friends if any of them had seen people vandalizing the dockless vehicles since they were scattered across the city a couple of months ago.

The answer was an emphatic "yes."

One friend saw a guy walking down the street kicking over every scooter he came across. Another saw a rider pull up to a curb as the handlebars and headset became fully detached. My friend figures someone had messed with the screws or cabling so the scooter would come apart on purpose.

A scroll through Reddit, Instagram and Twitter showed me photos of scooters -- owned by Bird, Lime and Spin -- smeared in feces, hanging from trees, hefted into trashcans and tossed into the San Francisco Bay.

Now playing: Watch this: San Francisco sees some vandalized electric scooters
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It's no wonder Lime scooters' alarm isn't just a loud beep, but a narc-like battle cry that literally says, "Unlock me to ride, or I'll call the police."

San Francisco's scooter phenomenon has taken on many names: Scootergeddon, Scooterpocalypse and Scooter Wars. It all started when the three companies spread hundreds of their dockless, rentable e-scooters across city the same week at the end of March -- without any warning to local residents or lawmakers.

Almost instantly, first-time riders began zooming down sidewalks at 15 mph, swerving between pedestrians and ringing the small bells attached to the handlebars. And they left the vehicles wherever they felt like it: scooters cluttered walkways and storefronts, jammed up bike lanes, and blocked bike racks and wheelchair accesses.

The three companies all say they're solving a "last-mile" transportation problem, giving commuters an easy and convenient way to zip around the city while helping ease road congestion and smog. They call it the latest in a long line of disruptive businesses that aim to change the way we live.

The scooters have definitely changed how some people live.

I learned the Wild West looks friendly compared to scooter land. In San Francisco's world of these motorized vehicles, there's backstabbing, tweaker chop shops and intent to harm.

"The angry people, they were angry," says Michael Ghadieh, who owns electric bicycle shop, SF Wheels, and has repaired hundreds of the scooters. "People cut cables, flatten tires, they were thrown in the Bay. Someone was out there physically damaging these things."

Yikes! Clipped brakes

SF Wheels is located on a quaint street in a quintessential San Francisco neighborhood. Called Cole Valley, the area is lined with Victorian homes, upscale cafes and views of the city's famous Mount Sutro. SF Wheels sells and rents electric bicycles for $20 per hour, mostly to tourists who want to see Golden Gate Park on two wheels.

In March, one of the scooter companies called Ghadieh to tell him they were about to launch in the city and were looking for people to help with repairs. Ghadieh said he was game. He wouldn't disclose the name of the company because of agreements he signed.

Now he admits he didn't quite know what he was getting into.

Days after the scooter startups dropped their vehicles on an unsuspecting San Francisco, SF Wheels became so crammed with broken scooters that it was hard to walk through the small, tidy shop. Scooters lined the sidewalk outside, filled the doorway and crowded the mechanic's workspace. The backyard had a heap of scooters nearly six-feet tall, Ghadieh told me.

His bike techs were so busy that Ghadieh had to hire three more mechanics. SF Wheels was fixing 75 to 100 scooters per day. Ghadieh didn't say how much the shop was making per scooter fix.

"The repairs were fast and easy on some and longer on others," Ghadieh said. "It'd depend on whether it was wear-and-tear or whether it was physically damaged by someone out there, some madman."

Some of the scooters, which cost around $500 off the shelf, came in completely vandalized -- everything from chopped wires for the controller (aka the brain) to detached handlebars to bent forks. Several even showed up with clipped brake cables.

I asked Ghadieh if the scooters still work without brakes.

"It will work, yes," he said. "It will go forward, but you just cannot stop. Whoever is causing that is making the situation dangerous for some riders."

Especially in a city with lots of hills.

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This scooter was oddly locked up at a San Francisco BART station and had cut brake cables and no handlebars.  

Dara Kerr/CNET

Ghadieh said his crew worked diligently for about six weeks, repairing an estimated 1,000 scooters. But then, about three weeks ago, work dried up. Ghadieh had to lay off the mechanics he'd hired and his shop is back to focusing on electric bicycles.

"Now, there's literally nothing," he said. "There's a change of face with the company. I'm not exactly sure what happened. … They decided to do it differently."

The likely change? The electric scooter company probably decided to outsource repairs to gig workers, rather than rely on agreements with shops.

That's gig as in freelancers looking to pick up part-time work, like Uber and Lyft drivers. And like Nick Abouzeid. By day, Abouzeid works in marketing for the startup AngelList. A few weeks ago, he got an email from Bird inviting him to be a scooter mechanic. The message told Abouzeid he could earn $20 for each scooter repair, once he'd completed an online training. He signed up, took the classes and is ready to start.

"These scooters aren't complicated. They're cheap scooters from China," Abouzeid said. "The repairs are anything from adjusting a brake to fixing a flat tire to adding stickers that have fallen off a Bird."

Bird declined to comment specifically on its maintenance program, but its spokesman Kenneth Baer did say, "Bird has a network of trained chargers and mechanics who operate as independent contractors."

All of Lime's mechanics, on the other hand, are part of the company's operations and maintenance team that repairs the scooters and ensures they're safe for riders. Spin uses a mix of gig workers and contract mechanics, like what Ghadieh was doing.

Gaming the system

Electric scooters are, well, electric. That means they need to be plugged into an outlet for four to five hours before they can transport people, who rent them for $1 plus 15 cents for every minute of riding time.

Bird, Spin and Lime all partially rely on gig workers to keep their fleets juiced up.

Each company has a different app that shows scooters with low or dead batteries. Anyone with a driver's license and car can sign up for the app and become a charger. These drivers roam the streets, picking up scooters and taking them home to be charged.

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This Lime scooter was weirdly wrapped in toilet paper.

Dara Kerr/CNET

"It creates this amazing kind of gig economy," Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden, who is a former Uber and Lyft executive, told me in April. "It's kind of like a game of Pokemon Go for them, where they go around and try to find and gobble up as many Birds as they can."

Theoretically, all scooters are supposed to be off city streets by nightfall when it's illegal to ride them. That's when the chargers are unleashed. To get paid, they have to get the vehicles back out on the street in specified locations before 7 a.m. the next day. Bird supplies the charging cables -- only three at a time, but those who've been in the business longer can get more cables.

"I don't know the fascination with all of these companies using gig workers to charge and repair," said Harry Campbell, who runs a popular gig worker blog called The Rideshare Guy. "But they're all in, they're all doing it."

One of the reasons some companies use gig workers is to avoid costs like extra labor, gasoline and electricity. Bird, Spin and Lime have managed to convince investors they're onto something. Between the three of them they've raised $255 million in funding. Bird is rumored to be raising another $150 million from one of Silicon Valley's top venture capital firms, Sequoia, which could put the company's value at $1 billion. That's a lot for an electric scooter disruptor.

Lime pays $12 to charge each scooter and Spin pays $5; both companies also deploy their own operations teams for charging. Bird has a somewhat different system. It pays anywhere from $5 to $25 to charge its scooters, depending on the city and the location of the dead scooter. The harder the vehicle is to find and the longer it's been off the radar, the higher the "bounty."

Abouzeid, who's moonlighted as a Bird charger for the past two months, said he's only found a $25 scooter once.

"With the $25 ones, they're like, 'Hey, we think it's in this location, it's got 0 percent battery, good luck,'" he said.

But some chargers have devised a way to game the system. They call it hoarding.

"They'll literally go around picking up Birds and putting them in the back of their car," Campbell said. "And then they wait until the bounties on them go up and up and up."

Bird has gotten wise to these tactics. It sent an email to all chargers last week warning them that if it sniffs out this kind of activity, those hoarders will be barred from the app.

"We feel like this is a big step forward in fixing some of the most painful issues we've been hearing," Bird wrote in the email, which was seen by CNET.

Tweaker chop shops

Hoarding and vandalism aren't the only problems for electric scooter companies. There's also theft. While the vehicles have GPS tracking, once the battery fully dies they go off the app's map.

"Every homeless person has like three scooters now," Ghadieh said. "They take the brains out, the logos off and they literally hotwire it."

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Some photos are too gross to enlarge. This scooter was smeared in poop.

CNET

I've seen scooters stashed at tent cities around San Francisco. Photos of people extracting the batteries have been posted on Twitter and Reddit. Rumor has it the batteries have a resale price of about $50 on the street, but there doesn't appear to be a huge market for them on eBay or Craigslist, according to my quick survey.

Bird, Lime and Spin all said trashed and stolen scooters aren't as big a problem as you'd think. When the companies launch in a new city, they said they tend to see higher theft and vandalism rates but then that calms down.

"We have received a few reports of theft and vandalism, but that's the nature of the business," said Spin co-founder and President Euwyn Poon. "When you have a product that's available for public consumption, you account for that."

Dockless, rentable scooters are now taking over cities across the US -- from Denver to Atlanta to Washington, DC. Bird's scooters are available in at least 10 cities with Scottsdale, Arizona, being the site of its most recent launch.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, regulators have been working to get rules in place to make sure riders drive safely and the companies abide by the law.

New regulations to limit the number of scooters are set to go into effect in the city on June 4. To comply, scooter companies have to clear the streets of all their vehicles while the authorities process their permits. That's expected to take about a month.

And just like that, scooters will go out the way they came in -- appearing and disappearing from one day to the next -- leaving in their wake the chargers, mechanics, vandals and people hotwiring the things to get a free ride around town.

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