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Inside how a scooter-sharing startup navigates San Francisco

Scooter companies have seen some backlash over where the electric scooters are placed. Here’s how Lime’s process works.

A Lime van parked behind a Lime scooter

When Limebike, now called Lime, first launched its dockless electric scooters in San Francisco, the company was met with a wave of backlash from residents who complained that they were blocking the public right of way.

But the process of deploying these scooters isn’t as haphazard as it’s made out to be.

A big part of the value proposition of Lime and its counterparts, like Spin and Bird, is that its scooters and bikes can be easily moved around to meet or create demand because they do not have to be tethered to one location. It’s a process called rebalancing.

There’s a great deal of opportunity to increase access to affordable and convenient transportation with the dockless model. That potential can only be realized, however, if companies deliberately move these scooters to those places where there is a transit or transportation gap.

For now, it’s early days for these scooter companies in San Francisco and the priority is to create demand, increase utilization of each scooter and create an efficient and robust charging system for the electric offerings.

That also means appeasing the city regulators and residents alike who are concerned with scooters stacking up in specific locations and creating piles of unused scooters.

Getting this process right in the early days of Lime’s presence in San Francisco is crucial. High rates of utilization of these scooters helps the company justify increasing the number of scooters in those markets which in turn helps attract funding in an increasingly capitalized space.

Lime, which is reportedly attempting to raise up to $500 million, is facing off against players like Bird, which is in the middle of trying to raise up to a $200 million round after closing a $100 million round in March, according to the Financial Times.

To rebalance and charge these scooters, these companies employ a combination of a local operations team as well as a number of independent contractors to move them around throughout the day. Today, Lime has about 40 employees on the ground working out of its charging centers or warehouses and about 200 independent contractors, called Juicers, who pick up and charge scooters for money.

At this point, about 70 percent of all scooters are picked up by Juicers, according to the company.

On a recent visit to one of the company’s warehouses on Harrison Street in San Francisco, Recode got a first-hand look at what this process looks like.

Lime scooters being charged before heading back out to the San Francisco streets.
Scooters in the warehouse being charged or repaired.
Scooters in the warehouse being charged or repaired.

First, both Juicers and operations managers have separate apps that tell them, among other things, where hot spots to drop off scooters are and where there are scooters that need to be charged. That information is gathered together by a local data science team that uses a combination of publicly available data and proprietary information. For example, the company looks at transit ridership data as well as scooter ridership data to see where the two coincide. That data effort is ongoing.

The process of rebalancing starts at 6 am

First thing in the morning, a team of Lime’s operations employees pick up scooters at one of their charging bases to distribute them throughout the city. They use their separate operations app, which looks similar to the app riders use but with more information, to see where the “hot spots” are to drop off scooters.

This team drives around in a Lime-branded sprinter van with scooters, fully charged overnight, and drops them off in those locations.

But the whole process is not an exact science; there’s still a lot of experimentation.

When we were riding along with one operations coordinator, Eddie Li, to drop off charged scooters later in the afternoon, he spotted locations along a busy San Francisco waterfront that he thought may be convenient for users. According to him, in the mornings if he had scooters left over in his van he would drop one or two in those locations to test whether it would create demand.

The data science team then checks to see whether those were utilized and if they need to up the number of scooters to be dropped off in those locations.

Where to pick up scooters and how much they will be paid for charging those scooters.
Juicer app showing where scooters are and how much they will be paid for charging those scooters.

Depending on how many scooters the data team tells operations coordinators to drop, Li and his team will line them up along the sidewalk — out of the way of pedestrians — and will pick a spot where there is enough space for both.

Juicers have a similar process. On the regular lime app, these contractors can toggle to the “juicer” mode. In that mode, they will see scooters that become eligible for pickup and charging after 8 pm. Lime provides the Juicers with a charger.

The next morning, they will see where to drop off scooters and are incentivized to drop them off before 7 am. Juicers are required to be licensed drivers and have a car in order to be able to pick up, charge and then move these scooters around.

In addition to locations, the app shows Juicers how many to drop off in each place. Once the juicers hit “serve,” the transaction is complete.

Hot spots to drop them off.
The Juicer app showing the transaction is complete after scooters are dropped off.
The Juicer app showing the transaction is complete.

That’s just the first shift. Throughout the day, Juicers and the operations team keep an eye out for scooters that need to be charged or repaired as well as those that may have been dropped off in a way that impedes pedestrian traffic.

The company didn’t give any details on how many rides were taken on each scooter on average but said the operations team will relocate scooters that are unused for more than a few hours. Still, at least one — which was being charged in the warehouse at the time of our visit — hadn’t been ridden in 25 days, according to an operations coordinator.

Those that need major repairs are sent to the company’s headquarters.

On the last point, as Recode first reported, the company is working on creating virtual drop-off locations for riders as well as partnering with local merchants to establish parking spots that riders will be incentivized through a points system to use.

All the scooter companies have seen a bout of vandalism in the last few weeks — some of which were shared on Twitter. On the Lime app, riders and juicers have the ability to report scooters that are not being put away appropriately or have been defaced. Li said that in some cases he’ll go pick up the scooter that has been vandalized to fix it himself.

There have also been cases of people cutting the exposed wires on the scooters. Concerns about the wires on the scooters being cut by vandals may soon be done away with, however. The company recently introduced a new scooter that it developed in partnership with Segway on which there are no exposed wires.

After the operations team picks up scooters that need to be charged and repaired, they deploy them as the scooters are ready. The scooters take about four hours to charge from zero percent but have about a 22 miles per charge range. The new scooters, which have yet to be deployed, have about a 37 miles per charge range. The team can pick up and drop off about 40 scooters at a time.

During our trip to the warehouse, Li took us on a deployment ride and said someone asked the company to drop scooters in an area in San Francisco called China Basin. To start, Li dropped off six scooters per the request of this individual. The data science team would then keep track of utilization of the scooters to determine if they should increase or decrease the number of scooters in these spots.

Scooters being delivered

Then at 8 pm the team begins picking up all the scooters in the city to charge them overnight. Lime wouldn’t give recent numbers on how many scooters the company currently has in San Francisco but said it started with 200. Picking the scooters up can last into the early morning, Li said.

Then the process starts all over again the next day.

This article originally appeared on

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