Electric scooters boost Tel Aviv's gig economy

Charging Bird scooters Photo: Dror Adi

"Globes"  talks to scooter collectors, "Bird hunters" who are earning up to NIS 10,000 per month, and await the launch of Lime.

Anyone walking about in Tel Aviv in recent months cannot fail to notice hundreds of electric scooters everywhere they look: in the street, the park, the beach, and of course on the sidewalk. Much of the blame can be placed on electric scooter company Bird, which earlier this week announced the expansion of operations to Ramat Gan. Users locate scooters through an app, ride them to their destinations, and leave them, with no need to find a parking station for them. According to the company's figures, Israel has over 25,000 electric scooter users. The average distance per ride is 2.4 kilometers.

Operating an electric scooter rental system without parking stations comes at a price. The scooters can only be charged when they are not in use. The gap is filled by people who collect up scooters, take them home, recharge them, and return them to central points around the city between 4 am and 7 am. Tel Aviv has a group of dozens of scooter collectors (known as Bird hunters in the US) who compete with each other, but who also have their own WhatApp group in which they share experiences and information and help each other.

Like other sources of income in what is called the "gig economy," the scooter collectors are not company employees; they are "service providers" with no guaranteed income. They pay their own expenses, but enjoy flexible hours. One example of this "improvised economy" is Uber drivers. The figures show that drivers leave the company after an average of six months. In contrast to Uber, it appears that electric scooters are a more worthwhile business: some people in Israel make all or most of their living from collecting, recharging, and distributing scooters.

Bird does not disclose figures for the scooter collectors, but an investigation by "Globes" shows that there are hundreds of registered scooter collectors. Dozens do this work regularly, collecting scooters on a daily basis and earning a few thousand shekels a month. A few collectors rely on it for their sole or main income, collecting dozens of scooters a day and earning over NIS 10,000 a month.

"It's like being paid for playing Pokemon Go"

"The biggest difference between a novice scooter collector and an experienced one is the length of time they spend on collecting each scooter," Shlomo Goren, 36, tells "Globes." Goren has worked as a scooter collector since August and collects dozens of scooters a day. It takes him 4-5 hours to collect and distribute the scooters. "When I was a beginning collector, I wasted many hours on traveling to the scooters, only to find that they were locked in a storeroom, for example. Now I can read the map better and understand which scooter is worth chasing and which isn't, so I waste less time on looking for each scooter," he says.

Goren, a prominent figure among scooter collectors, lives on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv and manages a computer games store named Dominator located on the same street. Most scooter collection and distribution takes place in the old northern and central areas of Tel Aviv, and Goren lives and works right in the middle of it. After closing his store to customers, Goren fills it to the brim with scooters.

The electric scooters are collected using a special app. The scooters in need of charging, and those that are lost or damaged, appear in various locations with a colorful mark: green for the scooters with the lowest collection prices, yellow for scooters with medium prices, and red for those with collection prices of NIS 50 or more. The collectors look at the map and decide which scooters to collect according to the price for each scooter, the distance, and the last time their location was updated.

Goren and I look at the map. "This scooter is worth a lot of money, and it has a low percentage," he says, pointing at a location on the map. "Its most recent location from GPS was 20 minutes ago, and the last time it was ridden was 15 hours ago. What is the probability that it was on the street for 15 hours when it's worth so much money and no other collector took it? It's probably locked up somewhere. I wouldn't leave my home for it," he declares.

We continue to examine the map, which is being updated constantly. The points are concentrated mainly in the old northern part of Tel Aviv, but also reach inside other cities in the greater Tel Aviv area. Goren suddenly focuses on a point on the map only a few minutes from where we are. "This is already more serious; its battery percentage is borderline and its location is current, but it hasn't been ridden since yesterday. It looks like the scooter of technicians that broke down; a technician repaired it and put it back on the street right now," he explains.

Goren calls himself a gamer and says that locating and collecting scooters is "a game on the need for gaming." In contrast to games in which you sit on the sofa in front of the screen, however, this game takes place in the city. It's like being paid for playing Pokemon Go. The scooters take me outside, and I experience the streets of Tel Aviv like I have never experienced them in my life. I enjoy this city more than I ever imagined possible - riding with a scooter on the promenade at sunset or in the morning to distribute them in Gan Atzmaut and seeing the sun coming over the horizon."

Amit Grant, 18, says he regularly collects 15 scooters a day and makes NIS 4,000 a month. He brings the scooters to his parents' home in Ramat Aviv, where he lives, and charges them at night. "They were opposed to the idea at first, but then they tried the service as customers and enjoyed the experience a lot," he says. Bird imposes a minimum age of 18; Grant is one of the youngest scooter collectors in Tel Aviv.

Bird representatives told "Globes" that the company did not compile statistics for the collectors, but on the basis of personal experience, they say that a very broad range of occupations is involved. They say that the collectors include owners of mobile stores, students, taxi drivers, and even high-tech workers.

According to the scooter collectors themselves, based on the composition of the WhatsApp group and those attending collectors' meetings held by the company, an absolute majority of the collectors are in the 20-30 age bracket, most of them students. Most young collectors earn a few thousand shekels. The collectors earning over NIS 10,000 are over 30 and usually get help from someone else, a kind of subcontractor, in collecting the scooters. They rent storerooms and use carts to collect large numbers of scooters.

When a collector sees a scooter he or she wants to collect, he or she has to get to it as quickly as possible before another collector gets it. "It's very competitive," says Tal Kashi (22) in describing the work. Kashi was released from the army two years ago, and now works at odd jobs, she says, and travels around the world. She is working at Bird in order to pay for a month-long trip to Vietnam, simultaneously with a catering job and a job as a bar hostess. She earns NIS 2,000-3,000 a month from collecting scooters, and has collected a total of 200 scooters so far.

She told "Globes" about the frustration she felt when she began working as a collector and didn't get to a scooter she found in time. "The first time I went to collect a scooter, I got to the place where it was supposed to be, and it wasn't there, and it wasn't in another place I looked. At one of the points, I saw another collector take the scooter I had come to collect. He looked at me and said, 'Welcome to the game.'"

The hoarders: Hiding scooters to make money

Guy, 55, an accountant by profession, did not disclose his last name. He said that he worked part-time with flexible hours so that he would also have enough time to collect scooters. "I haven't worked as an accountant for many years. Like many people over 40, I was unemployed - they call it 'unemployable.'" He lives in Ramat Hayahal and collects the scooters "on the way" "when I take my daughter to school or go to work."

Guy says that on an average day, he finds himself explaining more than once what he is doing to people taking an interest. "Bird did no advertising when they first came to Israel; it was all word of mouth. Some of the idea is for us to do public relations for them. We're the people in the field, we move around on the street and meet people asking, 'What's this?' and we explain it to them. People still don't know, so there are goodhearted people who see an electric scooter in the street and say, 'Leave it, kids', and take it home to guard it, but they don't understand that it is meant to be in the street."

Dealing with unexpected problems is an integral part of work as a scooter collector, and it looks like the support they give each other, mainly in the WhatsApp group, is essential in order to deal with some of the things that happen in work of this type.

"I collected a scooter yesterday and had nowhere to bring it back to in time," says Kashi. In order to be entitled to payment, a collector has to return the charged scooter to one of the "nests" (a term for the designated distribution points) marked on the map by 7am. When Kashi got stuck with a charged scooter a few minutes before seven in the morning, with no available nest nearby, she turned to the group for help: "The entire group came to my help and grabbed all of the nests - when you grab one nest, another one opens, and so on, until a nest opened near my home and I managed to return the scooter, thanks to them."

Conversations with collectors of Bird scooters show that another reason for the group is compensation for short-circuits in communications with the company itself. "Bird is in this stage with a very limited apparatus in Israel and very little response for us collectors. I assume that their focus is on marketing and deployment for the customers, and less of the operations part, so we help each other," says one of the collectors asking to remain anonymous. The complaint about inadequate response from the company was repeated many times by the collectors I spoke with.

For example, Grant says, "There was a week when I stopped charging, because their service didn't work and there were no answers to any questions. I don't do this for a specific purpose; I do it for fun, because there's something chasing after scooters and explaining to people that's very nice, and furthermore, this transportation could take over Tel Aviv and solve a lot of the mess that cars make in the city."

The collectors share information with the group, such as announcements that the company sends to the collectors and is sent to the group in order to make sure that everyone gets it. Useful information gained from experience in the field is passed along, and the company's policy on their work conditions is discussed.

For example, Bird portrays the collection task as taking place at night, starting at 10 pm, when all of the scooters are shut down for use by the general public and appear on the scooters map. The scooters that were used and their batteries ran dry during the day, however, will appear on the map earlier, and are collected around noon. The collectors say that someone waiting for the evening will probably not find many scooters on the map available for collection.

Another topic raised in the WhatsApp group is the change in the scooters pricing introduced by Bird last month. The price for collecting a scooter changes according to various parameters. If a scooter is further away, has a lower battery charge, or has not been used for a long time, Bird automatically gives it an attractive price that will encourage collectors to collect it and bring it back into use.

After a pilot in which the company put the price for collecting a scooter in the NIS 30-60 range, the price changed to a minimum of NIS 20 and a maximum of NIS 75. Collectors whose method is to collect a large number of scooters that are easy prey felt their income drop last month, while collectors specializing in collecting scooters with high collection prices - those located in the outskirts of the greater Tel Aviv region, or which were not used for a long time because they were lost, stolen, or damaged - benefited from the change in pricing.

In addition to the "ethical" scooter collectors, however, there are also a few collectors who play dirty, and they also benefit from the change in pricing. They are referred to as hoarders - instead of collecting scooters, charging them, and returning to the street immediately, they "hoard" - hide - a large number of scooters for entire days without scanning the code for it. Only when the collection price rises after the scooters are not used for a long time do the hoarders scan them, charge them, and return them to the street for the maximum payment.

On Wednesday, the collectors got an email from Bird on the subject of the hoarders, which has also become a problem outside of Israel. "We're all aware that there are some people doing charging who don't like playing by the rules," the announcement began. "Although this is only a minority… as the community of people doing charging increases and grows, the solutions to these challenges have to grow with it."

The notice listed measures taken by Bird to combat the phenomenon automatically, such as detecting collection of irregular numbers of scooters and movement of scooters on a large scale. In addition, the company called on the collectors to report a scooter that appears unusual in order to help "combat fraud in the community," and promised that it would take their reports seriously.

The new threat: Safety and competition

Beyond the phenomenon of hoarders, Bird faces regulatory restrictions in various places around the world, including in Israel. The plan for enhancing safety for riders of electric bicycles and motorized scooters recently drawn up by the Ministry of Transport was approved unanimously and is scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019. Under this plan, riding electric bicycles or scooters will be banned for people not holding a driving license, or who have passed a test in a special course, or who lack confirmation of fitness. In addition, the fine for riding an electric bicycle or motorized scooter without a helmet was increased from NIS 250 to NIS 1,000.

Almost no fines are currently being imposed in practice, and it is unclear to what extent the plan will be implemented. Bird is already preparing for the change. With the launching of the service in Ramat Gan, the company has distributed helmets in the city. Bird Israel general manager Yaniv Rivlin says, "We have already distributed 50,000 helmets around the world, and we'll continue with this in Israel. We'll distribute helmets to all of the scooter collectors in December."

On the other hand, distribution of helmets is not the main safety problem for the collectors, who customarily pile the scooters on top of each other and ride them around the city. "It's very tough for the collectors, because we have to endanger ourselves by driving on the road with 7-8 scooters," says Grant. He adds that the change in legislation will force him to collect scooters with a vehicle. "It's more complicated, because they have to be loaded, and there are places in the city that you can't stand still in. I'm not sure I'll be able to continue earning these amounts, and I'm not sure that I'll want to."

Another problem for Bird is growing competition from both bicycle rental companies and competing electric scooter rental companies. Lime, Bird's competitor, is scheduled to begin offering its service in Israel in the coming weeks.

Bird says that it is not worried about the competitors, but many scooter collectors I spoke with said that they had already registered to provide similar charging services to Lime as soon as Lime starts operating its service in Israel. "The thing with Bird is that when you take a scooter, you have to return it between 4am and 7am. That's tough," says Kashi, who also registered to provide charging services to Lime. "Today, I wake up at 4am and go back to sleep. At Lime, as soon as the scooters are fully charged, you can return them, which is much more worthwhile."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 14, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Charging Bird scooters Photo: Dror Adi
Charging Bird scooters Photo: Dror Adi
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