LOS ANGELES — Michelle and Gonzalo Cabezas begin their nightly scavenger hunt at 10. That’s when they start looking for the Lime scooters that people rent and ride by the minute — and leave wherever they please.
“People take them to the darnedest spots,” Mrs. Cabezas said from the passenger seat of her husband’s cargo van in northeast Los Angeles.
The Lime app was open on her iPhone, navigating toward the night’s first bounty, a sideways scooter a few houses from their own driveway. They’d earn $4.50 to pick up and recharge it.
Drive down most major streets in Los Angeles and it’s an obstacle course of Skittles-colored mobility devices: green Limes, yellow Bolts, red Jump bicycles.
Eight on-demand e-scooter and e-bike companies are permitted to operate in the city, and after a handful of rides, they all need juice.
Mr. and Mrs. Cabezas are among Lime’s army of “juicers”: independent contractors who sign up to charge scooters through the same app that riders use to rent them.
Out on their mission, Mr. Cabezas scanned the scooter’s QR code with his wife’s phone and loaded the Lime in the van. Then they were off to the next one, two blocks away in an alley. And another, around the corner in a public park. They picked up 16 scooters in an hour to charge at home, earning $67.
San Francisco-based Lime hires about 60,000 freelance juicers in the 100 markets where it operates. The company pays $3 to $10 per scooter that is retrieved, recharged and then released in “deployment zones” of its choosing.
Across the country, in dozens of cities, start-ups are conducting a grand experiment in two-wheeled, electric-powered urban mobility. And nowhere is that experiment more grand than in Los Angeles, where Lime operates 5,000 of the 37,500 scooters and e-bikes that the city is testing as part of the country’s largest dockless mobility program.
Robert Cartwright is a charger for Bird, a Santa Monica company that started the e-scooter craze two years ago. It operates in 100 cities worldwide and, like Lime, farms out its recharging to anyone 18 or older with a smartphone and a willingness to do it.
He moved to Los Angeles from Ohio a month ago in pursuit of a music career and started working as a charger “to make a lot of money fast,” he said. “If you do it every day, you can make $40,000 a year.”
Mr. Cartwright doesn’t own a car. He uses a Bird scooter to gather other Birds, sometimes riding five at a time stacked like a pinwheel to take them back to his apartment for recharging. Once their batteries are full, he borrows a friend’s car to drop them off in the “nests” where Bird needs them.
For each one, he makes about $6. He also does “move tasks” for $2 each, riding a scooter from an obscure place to a more in-demand spot near public transit hubs or along walkable thoroughfares with well-trafficked businesses.
In total, he makes about $160 a day. That’s comparable to an Uber driver, “only you don’t got to deal with people or talk to people,” Mr. Cartwright said.
These operations make up one of the lesser-known activities in the gig economy. But it’s proving lucrative for some of the thousands who do it; some chargers report making as much as $50 an hour.
It isn’t without its complications. On my drive with Mr. and Mrs. Cabezas, they used the app to find two Lime scooters at an apartment building, only to discover them locked behind a gate. Another scooter was being loaded into a pickup truck just as the couple drove up.
There are also hoarders, who drive around picking up scooters knowing that they will eventually need recharging, even if the scooter company hasn’t yet posted them to the app. And then there are the scooters that have a flat tire or are somehow broken and require a special trip to a fix-it location.
The job requires more than just figuring out the app. Making it profitable means understanding the city well enough to know if a tantalizing cluster of scooters is in a dangerous area. Also knowing where to park, because there’s no easier way to wipe out a night’s earnings than getting a costly ticket.
There’s also the upfront equipment cost. New juicers pay Lime $10 per charger. Mr. and Mrs. Cabezas said they had spent about $250 for the two dozen chargers they used, many bought secondhand.
Still, Mr. and Mrs. Cabezas said it was worth their time. Working three or four nights a week, the couple have made about $5,000 since May, with little spent out of pocket. They said that their electricity bill had risen about $10 a month and that they spent about $5 in gas each night.
As much these gigs may be a boon to the workers, there are questions about the mobility programs’ environmental and economic sustainability. A recent study from North Carolina State University found that driving around to pick up, recharge and release the scooters accounted for 40 percent of a scooter’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
On average, chargers drive between a half mile and two-and-a-half miles per scooter, said Jeremiah Johnson, one of the study’s authors. About 17 percent of the scooters picked up for recharging didn’t need it; they still had 95 percent of their charge.
“The charging itself, the electricity when you plug it in, is actually pretty small — just 5 percent of the total burdens,” he said.
And then there are the economics.
It costs less than 10 cents to recharge a scooter, according to ARK Invest, an investment management company focused on disruptive innovation. ARK researched the viability of the scooter economy this year and found that the real expense in charging wasn’t electricity but moving the scooters to prominent spots.
ARK found that scooter companies were generating $2.43 per mile in revenue but spending $2.55 per mile to keep the scooters operating. If companies used drivers for Uber and Lyft to move scooters, they could save $1.03 a mile, ARK said.
Uber and Lyft offer scooters through their ride-hailing apps, and both companies handle their own recharging. A Lyft official said its system “means that our team directly controls and oversees all aspects of operations, including drop-off, pickup, charging, cleaning and fixing — all within a local warehouse.”
Cities’ embrace of scooters has not always been smooth. Since September 2018, Santa Monica has been operating a pilot program with 3,000 permitted scooters. A year earlier, when Bird kicked off the scooter revolution by leaving them parked without permission, there were some “initial complaints about people pirating electricity on occasion,” the city manager, Rick Cole, said. “People who said, ‘Hey, somebody plugged into my outlet.’” Those issues were minor, he said, and handled on a case-by-case basis.
The larger concern has been ensuring that the recharged scooters aren’t left in areas where they’re a hazard. In Los Angeles, the struggle is putting more scooters in low-income communities underserved by public transit.
“Are they deploying in a way that’s not over-deploying in some neighborhoods and underserving others?” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
The agency forecasts 16 million e-scooter and e-bike trips in the city this year, and is working with the companies to make sure the scooters are left in appropriate locations.
“It’s not perfect by a long shot,” Ms. Reynolds said. “These companies are learning in real time just as we are.”