(TNS) — SAN JOSE, Calif. — Bobby Cruze looks like a stunt man as he zig-zags on an electric scooter, balancing eight others behind the handle bars. What passersby might think is a free talent show come to grace San Jose’s streets is really just Cruze’s evening job.
He’s what’s quickly become known as a “bird-hunter” and “juicer” — but, no, his craft has nothing to do with feathers or fruit. He’s paid to collect and refuel the urban scooters that are taking over downtown sidewalks in big cities from coast to coast. And his living room is one of the many surprising places where the Bird and Lime scooters littering Bay Area streets go to spend the night.
Charging scooters is the latest job offering in the gig-economy, combining the flexibility of driving for Uber with the competitive spirit and gamification of Pokémon Go — and it mostly happens under the cover of darkness. But what started out as an easy-if-not-obscure way to make a buck is quickly growing into a cutthroat pursuit for quarry that defines how the startup scooter scene is shaking up more than just urban transportation.
Bobby Cruze, a “Bird Charger,” connects a charger to a Bird electric rental scooter in his dining room in his home in downtown San Jose, Calif., on Monday, July 2, 2018. He collects them throughout downtown and recharges them at his home. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
As dusk sets in and dinner time nears, the scooter chargers come out to collect. By day, they lead lives as students, start-up employees or even stay-at-home parents. By night, they enter the competitive world of hunting for Bird scooters or harvesting Limes. It promises a handsome pay-off — but only if you can outpace and outsmart your competitor.
“When I’m collecting scooters, I’m go go go,” says Cruze, who sets off at a healthy sprint from his driveway in search of his first Bird. A few months into the game of scooter collecting, Cruze realizes that getting there first is everything.
On a recent weeknight, the 31-year-old geology grad student at San Jose State welcomed a reporter and photographer to try to keep up with his nightly quest, as long as we didn’t disclose too many specifics about his downtown San Jose hunting grounds.
The first scooter he collects is his ride. He’ll zip around a neighboring park and adjoining side streets, stacking scooters perpendicularly on the one he’s riding. He performs a one-of-a-kind balancing act, piling them so high, yet still managing to have both hands on the handle bars, keeping all the scooters from toppling off.
After a few round-trips, he’s back home, having rounded up a total of 20 scooters — to match his 20 Bird chargers. At $6 per scooter, Cruze makes up to $120 in one night. In one week of collecting scooters, he can take home nearly $900 — more than he makes per month as a teaching assistant.
A Bird spokesperson said scooters cost no more than 15 cents in electricity to charge overnight, so the profit margin for chargers can be huge.
Four months ago, the overnight world of Bird-hunting and juicing didn’t even exist. Lime, Bird and other companies such as Skip started showing up in San Francisco and soon other Bay Area cities like uninvited guests both embraced and cursed by pedestrians and public officials. The honeymoon has led to uneasy negotiations with city officials and new rules to restrict their presence.
The revolutionary business model, which relies on cheap rides and almost zero infrastructure, requires an equally innovative approach to replenish and recharge their fleets.
They hire independent contractors to collect scooters after 9 p.m., when all new rides are deactivated and the scooters’ GPS locations become visible only to chargers.
They scoop up scooters, scan them and charge them overnight using Bird’s or Lime’s specialized equipment. Most chargers align scooters neatly in a garage or a basement. But Joape Pela packs them into the living room of his downtown San Jose studio apartment, where 12 charging Birds compete for space with his wife, daughter and niece.
By 7 a.m. each morning, chargers drop off the replenished scooters at designated “nests” or “hot spots,” prime pickup areas near transit stations, stores or busy street corners.
The problem: Some chargers are going rogue. Many are increasingly collecting and hoarding scooters way before the 9 p.m. start-time, chargers say. Clumps of Birds and Limes are showing up in what appear to be garages and backyards, throwing off chargers in search of clusters that look like mother lodes.
“Some chargers are picking up scooters as early as 6 p.m.,” says Pela, who is a payment analyst for a local startup when he’s not collecting scooters.
But that’s nothing compared to what one Bird supervisor said he’s seen elsewhere.
“We’re trying to keep San Jose from becoming a complete (expletive)-show, like Venice Beach, where people camp out for five hours in front of a scooter,” said the supervisor who patrols San Jose in a Bird pickup truck and would only give his name as Dave E.
Cruze and Pela mostly collect scooters valued at $6 a piece. But Bird also pays a “bounty” of up to $20 for scooters that haven’t been collected for days or whose batteries have died and no longer send GPS signals.
That higher bounty is another way juicers are unfairly gaming the system, Pela said. “Some chargers will hold on to a bunch of scooters they picked up and wait until the bounty on the scooters increases.”
Accounts of bullying for Birds and territorialism over Limes are showing up across the Internet, complete with reports of break-ins and shakedowns.
A man told Cruze to “get off his turf” when he first got started in May. Over time, he’s learned which areas are safe to collect in and which are not.
“It’s very frustrating, because it doesn’t give the smaller guys a chance,” says Pela.
Lime wouldn’t say much about the growing reports of misconduct or answer specific questions about its model for recharging the fleet. Both Lime and Bird say that with GPS technology tracking every scooter, they are keeping close watch on their contracted chargers.
“If Juicers don’t follow our scooter collection protocol, or we identify any improper activity, Juicers are subject to removal from our program,” wrote Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for Lime.
Last week, Cruze found out exactly how Bird is cracking down. His account was blocked for collecting scooters before 9 p.m., and within minutes Dave E., the Bird supervisor, visited Cruze’s home to deliver an in-person warning and retrieve his scooters.
Dave E. said during a recent week Bird quit contracting with about 60 to 70 chargers caught cheating — just in San Jose.
“Bird has a magnifying glass on San Jose,” said Cruze, who admits he was in the wrong and hopes that his case sets an example for other chargers.
Like Pela, Cruze laments the adversarial and dishonest nature of scooter collecting today.
“My integrity has been compromised doing this,” he said, adding, “I want charging to be a level playing field.
“I want this to be fun again.”
©2018 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.