In a minivan with the rear seats ripped out, John is chasing one of his 250 electric scooters down a California highway. He finds it 10 miles away, hiding in a bush—a run-and-dump tactic that he says thieves use to test whether anyone will come after them before they take a scooter home. John, not his real name, always gives chase, because his livelihood depends on it. “If I come in too soft, then they say, ‘Oh, this guy, he’s a pussy. I could kick his ass.’ So I have to be a little aggressive,” says John, who is well past the age where it’s safe to fist-fight. He spends the next hour hunting down other scooters from his fleet that have been knocked over or need recharging.
John is a contractor for scooter rental company Bird Global and looks after all the scooters in a particular area in return for a cut of rental fees paid by riders. Fleet managers, as they are called, are technically their own bosses, but John spends his days at the beck and call of the company’s app. Bird requires him to maintain several productivity scores that, to John, feel nonnegotiable. Each scooter lit up in red in the fleet manager app knocks his score down. That warning can signal that a scooter has been stolen, fallen over due to sloppy parking or vandalism, or simply sat idle for too long—situations largely outside of John’s control.
For Bird to offer convenient rides at the tap of an app, John and other fleet managers must handle the grinding logistics of scattering scooters around cites. It takes street smarts, plenty of guts, hours of driving, and sometimes strongly implied threats of violence. If more than 10 percent of his fleet turns red, John can get chewed out by a Bird manager, and he has been told he could lose some scooters for breach of contract.
Bird became the largest micromobility company in North America this fall after purchasing competitor Spin. It was once valued at more than $2 billion and seemed to epitomize a shiny future of clean urban transport. But ridership slumped during the pandemic—and so did Bird’s shares after its 2021 stock market debut. In late 2022, after a series of business setbacks, the company warned investors that it could go bankrupt. It was booted from the New York Stock Exchange in September of this year for failing to consistently maintain a market cap of $15 million. As the company scrambled to survive, it has squeezed its fleet managers harder. On December 20, their situation became more uncertain when Bird announced it was filing for bankruptcy.
The years leading up to that moment have been tough for many Bird fleet managers. More than a dozen current or former fleet managers in the US, who like John asked for anonymity, fearing retaliation from Bird, described their unstable and sometimes punishing relationships with the company. They made personal and monetary sacrifices for Bird while, as contractors, having little power over their working conditions. And as Bird’s business struggled, fleet managers were presented with updated contracts that John and others say have cut their income by about half.
The situation for some fleet managers has become desperate. One in the Pacific Northwest said he had only slept eight hours on a recent weekend and that he and his two employees have all been in separate car accidents on the job. Three other fleet managers say they have sometimes carried guns when on the street with Bird scooters, because brandishing a weapon can feel useful when facing off scooter thieves or vandals. Several former West Coast fleet managers carried Tasers while on the job.
WIRED sent a list of questions to Bird based on interviews with fleet managers, but company spokesperson Adam Davis declined to address most of them. He said that Bird was ending the fleet manager program in some cities—apparently cutting the contractors loose and replacing them with staff or new contractors who handle more scooters and are paid less. In a statement sent to WIRED before the bankruptcy announcement, Michael Washinushi, Bird’s interim CEO, said the company got new management and ownership this year that was trying to “reset” how the company does business. “Through the course of the year, management has improved operations while being laser focused on providing a safe and enjoyable experience for our riders and an improved relationship with our partners, including our fleet managers,” Washinushi said.
Bird grew fast. The company was founded in September 2017 with just 10 scooters in Santa Monica, California. Nine months later it had raised more than $300 million in funding at a valuation of about $2 billion. As city dwellers flirted with the fun and novelty of being able to hop on an electric ride, investors embraced the idea that scooters could upend urban transport by replacing cars.
Part of Bird’s model was to outsource the challenging logistics of leaving scooters propped up in public places for anyone to rent, steal, or abuse. In the company’s early days, it invited people to become freelance “chargers” who got paid for finding and recharging scooters low on battery, and it used freelance mechanics for repairs, paying out on a per-scooter basis. The company started hiring salaried mechanics in some cities to repair scooters in early 2019.
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In March 2020, Bird ridership plummeted as Covid lockdowns shut cities down. Bird fired 406 office-based workers over a two-minute Zoom call. Company filings later showed that rides dropped by more than 50 percent in 2020. It was around this time, during the spring and summer of 2020, when people who had been freelancing as chargers say they started getting surprise messages from Bird. They were pitched an exciting new opportunity that involved getting their own fleet of scooters and a cut of the money from every ride taken.
The new fleet manager gig combined the duties of charging, repairing, and storing scooters—just about every aspect of the scooter operation other than the app that people tapped to find a ride. Some of the job’s responsibilities could be tragic—several fleet managers recall picking up scooters from accident scenes. Participants had to start their own companies to get scooters from Bird, agreeing to make “equipment payments” that were taken out of their ride payouts each week until the scooters were paid off. After that, a fleet manager would be entitled to 81 percent of the net revenue from each ride, though contracts show the title of the scooter would always remain with Bird.
On TikTok, dozens of influencers talked up the Bird fleet manager program as a “side hustle” that anyone, even a teenager, could do with up to $1,500 in projected weekly earnings. Fleet managers who joined the program when it launched by April 2020 describe it as almost addictive. “So much money, that it was actually pretty stupid,” says a former fleet manager in San Diego, who quickly built a thriving business. He recalls seeing gross sales in the high six figures for his fleet’s first year, and earning close to $100,000 out of that in profits, after Bird’s fees and his own expenses such as van purchases and warehouse rentals. “It was a lot of low-income people that the program was employing when a lot of these other businesses didn’t even look at us,” says another former fleet manager in San Diego.