Like a flock of pigeons on a stray piece of bread, they descended quickly and widely across Atlanta. Seemingly overnight, at the beginning of May, Bird’s dockless electric scooters appeared in midtown, downtown and other in-town neighborhoods.
The Santa Monica, CA-based company hasn’t released figures on how many scooters have been placed in Atlanta or how many are riding them, but they are certainly highly visible on city streets. While Atlanta was the first southeastern metro launched, they are now also in Nashville — though just last week, Nashville officials confiscated about half of them following a cease-and-desist order in an effort to remove them from public right-of-way areas.
Atlanta officials have not yet come out one way or another for the Birds, which means, at least for the time being, they are readily available.
One might think that to maintain a city-wide flock of Birds, the company must employ a full team in each city it launches in. But, in the age of gig jobs and on-demand work, they’ve figured out a different solution.
The company employs a contract workforce, officially called “chargers” but also informally known as Bird “hunters,” that seek out the scooters at night, capture them, bring them home to charge them and then drop them back off the next day. Bird pays $5-$20 per scooter.
Usman Shahid, a technology entrepreneur, signed up to be a charger the day Birds landed in Atlanta.
“I saw them everywhere and I was mostly just interested in the technology, because I’m in the technology space — I just wanted to know how are they doing this,” Shahid says. “And when I learned that you can make anywhere from $5 to $20 picking them up, if you do the math that’s like $900 in a month for not really doing anything.”
After some back and forth with a representative through the in-app messenger, he scheduled a pre-screening phone call. “Once we got on the phone it was pretty much instant,” he says. “They just need to know you’re not a crazy person.”
But Bird does have a Charger agreement and clear terms laid out for those who perform the service. The instructions detail how a Charger can search for eligible Birds on a separate interface within the app. Once they track down a Bird, they scan the scooter’s code and bring it home to plug it into a company-provided charger cord.
The terms also indicate some pretty clear guardrails that Chargers are expected to adhere to. For example, they should “perform a visual inspection of the Bird Scooter prior to returning it to an authorized Bird Scooter location (“Bird Nest”) and notify Bird immediately if the Bird Scooter requires maintenance.”
Chargers are instructed not to enter private or gated property and informed that they assume full responsibility for their own safety while searching and charging scooters.
Shahid says that, in his experience, those scooters can take significant searching to track down.
“It’s pretty funny — there’s a place where someone keeps putting them on train tracks, so there’s like 20 on these random train tracks,” he says. The company encourages Chargers to pick the scooters up at night when the Birds are not being ridden.
The Atlantic reported that in other Bird-seeded cities, muggers have followed chargers heading into less-populated areas. Some chargers reported being victims of theft.
When asked for comment on their charger program, Bird spokesperson Kenneth Baer said, “Bird works with a network of trained chargers and mechanics in markets where Bird is available. As part of our pledge to ‘Save our Sidewalks’ and to help riders have the best possible experience, these individuals help collect Birds each evening for charging and any necessary maintenance.”
Shahid has not experienced safety concerns as a charger, but he has had issues attempting to track down scooters that appeared on the app, but weren’t present when he showed up in real life. He suspects many are sitting in private apartments or yards.
“This is the kind of messed up thing about it that really angers me — sometimes when I go to get one, probably like 25 percent of them are either in someone’s apartment or they’re just not there,” he says. “I’m pretty sure they’re using the chargers to just verify that, yes, it’s not there.”
Bird doesn’t release details on how it prices each scooter, but Shahid says he hasn’t seen it relate to their charge or lack thereof. In fact, most of the Birds he has picked up are still going strong.
“The first one I picked up that I got $17 for, it had 90 percent charge. I think part of it is just lost reclamation — trying to make sure they can keep them.”
In other cities, reports have documented Birds being stolen. The Charger agreement covers the consequences should a contractor attempt to steal a scooter — if a Bird is not returned to a Nest within three days from the date initially picked up, the charger can be held responsible for the full value ($1,000).
Because of his initial difficulty, Shahid doesn’t go out of his way to Bird hunt anymore. Instead he takes a look at the app during his commute to and from work, which, in the pre-Bird era, he typically walked. If a scooter is on the way, he’ll grab it and ride it the rest of the way.
“So it can be a free ride and I get paid eight or ten bucks. But having done it for a little while now, I’ll only pick one up if its on my way. I’ll never go out of my way for one,” he says.
His earnings, in the little over a month Birds have been in Atlanta? He estimates $50.
“In actuality, you’re never going to make a living going out of your way to get these things,” Shahid says.
But, though Birds have elicited conflicting feelings across the country, Shahid is still overall a proponent.
“I have no grudge against them. I think they’re really going to improve the economy, because now places are way more accessible,” he says. “I go to this restaurant I love now all the time because it’s a little far; I would never take a Lyft there, but I take a scooter there.”