Life as a Bird bounty hunter in Kansas City
The sun’s down, and we’re prowling the darkened streets of Kansas City in a small sedan, stalking our prey. We’ve got flashlights, and we’ve got cell phones. Little green, yellow, and red dots light up the map on the Bird app, guiding us on our hunt.
Scooters, of course, are everywhere these days — dinky, almost toy-like vehicles scattered across the streets and sidewalks of the city, praised as part of the dawn of a new age of transportation. You can hardly move in Downtown, Crossroads or River Market without seeing a Bird (those are the black ones) or Lime (green) scooter. They’re easy and disposable — a dollar to activate, 15 cents every minute thereafter, and you just leave the scooter at your destination for the next person to use.
What you might have wondered is who keeps these shareable scooters in working order, day after day. The answer: your neighbors, coworkers, and friends, most likely — anybody looking to make some extra money. They pick up the scooters, charge them at their houses, and return them to their “nests” by dawn. These gig-economy workers are referred to as “chargers.”
But I think of them — us — as bounty hunters. You’re looking for a capture — to beat somebody to a scooter. It can be thrilling. As one journalist has said, the scooter chase is like a less fun version of Pokemon Go. It taps into that primal obsessive character trait of wanting to “Catch ‘em all.” And along the way, you start to see your city in a whole new light.
But like any job — and it is a job — the ride can get a little bumpy.
Bird migrated to Kansas City in July, following a quick and relatively covert pre-launch period that included targeted social media ads for prospective chargers, who were invited to a Tuesday-evening launch event at the airport.
Like Uber and other Silicon Valley companies that have sought to disrupt the way American cities operate, Bird opted to beg for forgiveness rather than permission, dropping 100 scooters onto the streets without the OK from City Hall. In other cities, this has led to fines and bans. But Kansas City government took a friendlier approach, stating that it wanted to work with Bird — albeit after it had landed. Soon, a tentative agreement was struck, and more and more scooters slid into town.
Every night at 9 p.m., the scooters “go live” on the app for chargers. Green dots on the app’s map show the locations of the cheapest bounties, yellow dots indicate more valuable ones, and red dots show the $20 scooters — generally the hardest to find. I’m usually the navigator and my husband is the driver. I start looking for Birds nearby to see what we can pick up the easiest. On this night, I spot a $20 Bird at UMKC. Jackpot. The hunt is on.
We head to a parking garage on campus. But the Bird is not on the corner where the app says it was three minutes ago. We use the app to “ping” the Bird, so that it will start loudly chirping, making it easier to find. But we don’t hear any chirps. With the car windows down, we slowly climb the levels of the garage and come back down again. Nothing. We park and start walking around the parking garage (I hate parking garages, probably because I watched too much X-Files as a kid) and check the stairwells. No scooter.
It’s a common problem, Birds not being where they’re supposed to be. People leave scooters in the middle of sidewalks (not cool) or even in trees (admittedly, a little funny). Several times, we’ve gone to a location only to find that a Bird is on private property — inside an apartment building, behind a gate, in someone’s backyard. At that point, there’s not really much that can be done.
Perhaps these are folks who need the scooter to get to work or class the next day and don’t want to risk it not being available in the morning. But I’m generally more skeptical, especially when the app shows a scooter’s been in one spot for several days. I tend to think these are situations where people have taken a scooter hostage and are letting its battery drain in order to increase its bounty. At which point the hostage takers can claim the bounty themselves.
I reached out to Bird with several questions for this story, including whether they have a way to stop their system of charging from being exploited by hoarders. They said they’d respond by my deadline, but I didn’t hear back.
When we started charging for Bird, competition was fierce. On more than one occasion, we chased down scooters only to have another charger swoop in and drive off with our Bird just as we arrived.
But in September, Bird dropped its minimum price for Birds from $5 to $3.
The drop caused a lot of chargers to leave the market, including John Ruhlman, a minivan-cruising dad who lives near Liberty. He was driving to downtown KC to charge Birds, and a 40 percent drop in wages was a major deterrent from continuing to charge, especially when factoring in gas and the fact that taxes aren’t taken out of the pay up front.
Before, he could pick up 12 scooters and make at least $60. Now the minimum is nearly half that: $36.
“It’s still an easy way to make money,” Ruhlman tells me. “But it’s a grind. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be, that’s for sure, especially to make it worthwhile.
For Michael Bogart, who has been a Bird charger since the company arrived in town in July, charging is a good way to make some extra cash; he used his earnings for a recent vacation to Vermont and Boston. Even though he doesn’t ever ride Birds himself, Bogart picks up about 20 scooters five nights a week, charging them in his garage. He says he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon, but he’s also run into the problem of hoarders. Bogart notes that, within the app, there is a way for chargers to report Birds that are being held hostage.
“But I don’t know if it helps very much,” he says.
Another night, another hunt.
I’m standing in the pouring, humid autumn rain outside an apartment complex wondering why the app refuses to let me scan and capture this damn Bird. I start to spiral. Why am I doing this? Why am I here in the rain? After three attempts, I say, “Fuck it,” and move on to a different scooter sitting a few feet away. Voilà. The scan works on the first try. I throw the Bird in the backseat. On to the next one.
A curious guy walks by with his dog. He tries to chat me up about the scooters, but dude, you’ve got an umbrella and I’m soaked and in a hurry and having an existential crisis. I give him my best Midwestern-polite, answering with as few words as possible. I just want to go home. Back in the dry car, we check the app and see more Birds next to each other on Broadway, not far away. My husband drives us there, and we run out again in the pouring rain. We’re nearly done capturing the first Bird when a man staggers out from the shadows. He’s yelling incoherently — angrily — and running right at me.
We run back to the car. What the fuck?
I’ve never gone out to catch Birds by myself, and I’m glad I wasn’t alone that night. But I think about the other female bounty hunters out there and wonder: Are there women who have put their safety at risk just to get $5? Do they have to hunt in packs? And what does it say about our society when my husband can go out and make extra cash doing this alone, but I don’t feel like it’s safe enough in the dark for me to go, even in the “nice” neighborhoods?
I start to ask around. Several women I speak to say the same thing: They only go out to charge with their boyfriends/husbands/partners/friends. Not alone.
Ann Winn is a “juicer” (what Lime calls its chargers) who also delivers for Postmates. She says she feels safer delivering food than charging scooters. On one of her first outings as a Lime juicer, she had a run-in with a woman she believes was on drugs. Luckily, her husband was with her.
“I’m not that skittish, but that kind of made me think, ‘What would I have done in that situation if he hadn’t been with me?’” Winn says.
Caci Leigh and her fiance have been charging since August. They used to primarily hunt around the Northeast but now focus on the River Market. She says she’s heard more stories about Bird chargers threatening other chargers than just random people on the street, like I encountered.
“It’s not safe in KC at all,” she says. “There’s some really scary people. I’ve even heard about people threatening to kill other people over a high-dollar Bird, which is scary.”
Leigh continues: “They get kind of sketchy. They think they hustle and are tough and take on other chargers that they think seem weak.”
Her advice, especially for women: Don’t go alone, download safety apps for your phone, keep your phone fully charged, and always bring mace, a gun, or a knife just in case.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done on Bird’s end about this. Ultimately, it comes down to what an individual feels comfortable doing. But the safety issue points to interesting gender disparities we see with other gig economy startups in the transportation field. In June, researchers from Stanford released a study of more than a million drivers on Uber and found a 7 percent gender earnings gap among drivers, which can be attributed to three things: experience on the platform, preferences for driving speed, and preferences over where to work (driven by where drivers live and safety).
And while there’s no study yet, I’d venture to say that the safety factor plays a greater role for Bird, given the fact that you have to get out of your car and charging has to be done at night.
I calculated that we could maybe pull in a couple hundred extra bucks each week if we went out a few times. Not bad money. But it’s contract work, and with the Bird price drop, it’s probably not a sustainable long-term gig for most people. Physically hauling Birds (those suckers are heavy), charging them up at home, and returning them to their designated nests by 7 a.m. isn’t a breeze. After capturing dozens of Birds, you realize just how much of a hassle it is to make $40 — and remember, that’s $40 before tax.
Meanwhile, the corporate machine in which you’ve made yourself a cog has received more than $300 million in venture capital this year alone and is valued at more than $2 billion — and that’s just Bird, not the other scooter companies. The truly big question about all these scooters is whether Bird and Lime (and all the other companies dominating the gig economy) will evolve in a way that works for their workforces. Will they address the problems chargers face or pass the buck? And is the future we as a society want really one in which we all trade away our jobs with benefits for the privilege of picking up hunks of metal for billion-dollar companies based thousands of miles away?
After that incident on Broadway, I don’t see myself roaming the streets of Kansas City in the dead of night with my husband much in the future. Maybe once in awhile. Maybe if a big purchase is coming up, or an unexpected bill. At least for me, though, the novelty of being a scooter bounty hunter wore off pretty quickly. But let me know when the next transportation fad comes along — rideshare hovercrafts? — and I might be willing to give it another try.