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Blood, Guns, and Broken Scooters: Inside the Chaotic Rise and Fall of Bird

Bird was once valued at more than $2 billion—now it has filed for bankruptcy. This is the untold story of the contractors who risked it all to try to make the micromobility dream a reality.

A collage of scene depicted in the story about the Bird Scooter contractors.

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES HOSKING

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.

“Stupid Money”

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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Are you a current or former employee of Bird? We’d like to hear from you. Using a nonwork phone or computer, contact the author of this article on amydmartyn@protonmail.com. WIRED protects the confidentiality of its sources.

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, dozensof 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.

With impressive gross sales, many fleet managers doubled down in an attempt to capture more of the money flowing through their fleets. They accepted Bird’s invitations to take on additional scooters, and with them the extra expenses needed to care for the vehicles. They leased or bought trailers, trucks, or vans, warehouse space, and spare parts sold exclusively by Bird, and took on their own workers, such as mechanics. One former fleet manager on the West Coast employed more than two dozen people to help manage more than a thousand Bird scooters.

Things took a darker turn in June 2021. As Bird was preparing to debut on the stock market through a regulation-minimizing scheme known as a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, that would value the business at $2.3 billion, fleet managers were presented with a new contract. A copy reviewed by WIRED cut payouts to fleet managers from 81 percent of the “net revenue” from each ride, down to 50 percent of the money left on each ride after Bird added four new fees not in prior contracts. (Davis, the spokesperson for Bird, described WIRED’s reporting on the contract as inaccurate but declined to specify what was considered incorrect.)

Fleet managers felt they had no choice but to accept the new contract, which automatically renewed annually. Some say they were offered more scooters to make up for what seemed to be worse terms. Bird also threw in incentives like eliminating the scooter debt taken out as fees in the original fleet manager contract, promising to replace older scooters with a newer model called the Bird Two, and, for some fleet managers, adding bonuses.

But fleet managers allege that the Bird Two, announced in August 2019, had major problems. Its design replaced the mechanical brake of Bird’s earlier scooters with a single hydraulic brake on the back wheel. Seven current and former fleet managers say that was a flawed choice for scooters left outdoors. The brake calipers and handles would often freeze in the winter, making the brakes ineffective, they say, and in hot weather, when the scooters and the brakes were used most heavily, the seal on the brake calipers could wear down and rupture, dumping the hydraulic fluid out.

The hydraulic brake was near guaranteed to fail within several months, the seven current and former fleet managers say, but they recall that Bird asked them to only replace parts as they broke for the first month or so that the new models were on the road. In May 2021, the company announced the Bird Three scooter. This model initially had a rear hydraulic brake and a front mechanical brake, three former fleet managers say, until the design was updated. “Safety was not enforced explicitly on us. In the contract, yeah. It says, you know, you've got to maintain your fleet, you're responsible for this and that. But other than that, it was very strictly numbers-driven," one former fleet manager says. In spring 2021, about 30 to 40 of the scooters would fail every week, says another former fleet manager, who operated one of Bird’s larger fleets.

By the summer of 2021, the fleet managers say, Bird instructed them to swap the hydraulic brakes on the Bird Two and Three models for mechanical brakes, causing a temporary parts shortage. An internal message seen by WIRED shows Bird’s communications team discussing a mechanical caliper retrofit and the parts previously being out of stock. Some fleet managers say that Bird comped them for the brakes; others say they paid for the upgrades themselves. One fleet manager in Los Angeles, who later stopped working with Bird, claims fleet managers would even steal parts off of each other’s scooters. The fleet manager theorizes that the thefts were to help make quota, and compares Bird’s response unfavorably to the auto industry. “If you have a defective product, you do a recall and you upgrade it,” the fleet manager says. “In this case, they were just like, ‘Hey, whatever, just keep changing them out.’”

Davis said WIRED’s reporting of the brake problems was inaccurate but declined to specify in what way. A statement from interim CEO Washinushi did not address the brake problem but said that Bird strongly refutes any suggestion its fleet manager program posed a safety concern to Bird fleet managers or riders. “Safety is our top priority,” the statement read. “Our vehicles meet or exceed the latest vehicle safety standards, and we require fleet managers to inspect each vehicle they encounter as part of their services agreement with Bird.”

One current and three former fleet managers suspect that the design flaw endangered riders, but Bird does not share formal accident data with fleet managers. A current fleet manager recalls getting sent to collect what they recall was a Bird Two scooter and discovering it was covered in blood; the brake wasn’t functional when they tested it.

In May 2021, Bird told investors that since its launch the company had been “involved in over one hundred personal injury lawsuits and threats of lawsuits involving allegations of soft tissue injuries, fractures, brain injuries, internal injuries and death.” In Los Angeles civil court alone, Bird has been sued in personal injury or product liability cases more than a dozen times this year. The company declined to answer questions about the lawsuits or the hydraulic brake system.

A former fleet manager in the Phoenix area recalls that, during a local meet-and-greet this spring, a senior manager from Bird’s corporate office blurted out that earlier that day he had been riding a Bird scooter that had failed to brake. A second former fleet manager at the event also recalled the same senior manager sharing that story and expressing concern about Bird scooters that didn’t have working brakes. “I don't know what he said he did, but I remember he said he almost went out in the intersection,” the second fleet manager says.

It wasn’t clear what model the scooter was, but the first fleet manager says Bird scooters are often poorly maintained because of the pressure on people like her. “A lot of the fleet managers, in order to save their job, because they've got so much overhead, because they've invested so much, they are deploying Birds that are subpar,” she says.

The senior manager declined to speak about the brake incident and directed WIRED to Bird’s press team. The two fleet managers who recall his comments both say they trusted his judgment and said he seemed genuinely concerned. Davis, the Bird company spokesperson, says that Bird prioritizes safety and requires fleet managers to inspect scooters. “We are proud of our safety record, and proud that our fleet program has provided hundreds of jobs and economic opportunity to our partners across the country.”

Summer of Discontent

Bird ended 2022 with an immense self-own. The company admitted in November that it had overstated its revenue for the past two years due to “material weakness in its internal control over financial reporting.” In December, it announced a proposed deal to merge with Bird Canada, a private company based in Toronto that had licensed the Bird brand and managed to turn a profit. On an earnings call in May of this year, the revamped Bird told investors it had been “aggressively” cutting costs to improve its financial standing—including the elimination of the fleet manager program in several cities.

During that same call, investors heard that Bird scooters were being pulled out of cities where fleet managers were paid more than those in other markets. As Washinushi put it, “We realized a favorable change in the effective fleet manager payment rates due to the closure of several jurisdictions in which we paid higher payments.” In the past year, Bird has pulled its scooters out of San Francisco, publicly putting the blame on the city’s “regulatory environment,” which the company says was “uniquely challenging.” Bird also pulled its scooters out of Tampa and, more recently, San Diego, which had been one of Bird’s more successful cities.

As the spring of 2023 turned to summer, some fleet managers felt trapped. Scooter shepherding is a seasonal business, with some operating at a loss in the winter but making their money back and more in the summer, when more people take rides. After the new contract cut their payouts, some fleet managers struggled to keep up with their scooter expenses. “The only reason I continue to do this is to pay off the commercial vans I purchased when I still believed in the American dream,” says one current fleet manager.

The fleet manager in the Phoenix area says she poured at least $6,000 into fleet maintenance this spring alone—replacing mechanical brakes, tires, and other parts so everything would be in good shape ahead of the busy season. In late March, she says her contract was terminated for not maintaining two of her productivity scores. Bird sent another fleet manager from that area, who happened to be a close relative, to pick up her fleet of 200 scooters.

She estimates that she made more than $500,000 in revenue for Bird since 2020—while accumulating $90,000 in personal debt. Her truck was repossessed in February, and she is currently doing other gig work while searching for something more stable. Looking back, Bird’s fleet manager gig was “almost like a gaslighting program,” she says. “They try to reel you in with the money, and I guess it's good until you start having to do repairs and pay for mechanic fees. Every day that passes, I just get angrier and angrier about the situation I’m in.”

In May, according to another fleet manager in the Phoenix area, Bird informed its dozen remaining fleet managers in Maricopa County via Zoom that their contracts would be terminated. They later learned that they would all be replaced by a single fleet manager for the whole metro area. The fleet manager was left with a warehouse lease to pay, a cargo van he financed, and two full-time employees of his own.

Fleet managers appear to be suffering the collateral damage from the collapse of the micromobility bubble that had once propelled Bird and other venture-backed transportation companies to heady heights. During a Bird town hall several weeks ago, a widespread parts shortage was discussed with management in attendance over Zoom. In a memo sent to fleet managers following the meeting, Bird said that the third-party partner it uses to fill and ship orders was experiencing “ongoing fulfillment issues.” Bird added that “unblocking spare parts … is one of our primary goals this winter.”

In its announcement that it was filing for bankruptcy, Bird said it would restructure financially to “strengthen its balance sheet and better position the company for long-term, sustainable growth,” and claimed that the company “will operate as usual during this process.” Bird’s operations in Europe and Canada are not part of the bankruptcy filing.

Bird founder Travis VanderZanden has fared better than the fleet managers who toiled to make his vision possible. Over a three-month span in mid-2022 he gave up his position as company president and CEO and left the board, but still had the Miami mansion he purchased for $21.7 million in 2021. This month, real estate listings indicated it was under offer at $30 million. VanderZanden did not respond to requests for comment.

A woman in Oklahoma who has contracted for Bird since 2019, first as a charger and then in the fleet manager program, asked for time off this summer because her father, who also used to help out with her fleet of scooters, was in a hospice with cancer. Instead, she says she was kicked out of the program, in July, two days before he died, because her productivity score dropped. She says another fleet manager then messaged her to ask when a good time would be for him to take her scooters.

“I’ve worked all kinds of jobs,” she says. “I’ve never in my life felt so disposable.”

John, the fleet manager in the minivan in California, had hoped to keep working with Bird long enough to pay off his house. In July of this year, he even agreed to fix and upgrade more than 100 of his scooters when Bird asked him to. In the middle of August, John received a phone call from the company with shocking news—Bird was terminating his contract. In a follow-up email, John was informed that Bird was ending the fleet manager program in his area, and so his work was no longer necessary. A supervisor thanked John for his dedication over the years and for promoting clean transportation—and then gave him two weeks to hand over his fleet of scooters. “I think they basically just used me to have the scooters repaired,” John says.

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Credit belongs to : www.wired.com

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