There are more electric scooters than people in Pacific Beach, a crowded neighborhood in San Diego known for its bars, surf, attractive college students, and increasingly unaffordable rent. Scooters from Lime, Bird, Lyft, Uber, and Razor are parked along the main path. People can even rent tiny electric bikes from a company called Wheels.
John Heinkel, a professional repo man with a full head of graying hair and a small and scrappy build, hoists a Lime scooter on its back wheel, setting off the alarm underneath the scooter’s brake. Heinkel muffles the annoying sound with his hand.
“You want to throw a couple?” he offers at one point, gesturing toward the dumpster, halfway jokingly.
Dan Borelli, his business partner, says that towing scooters is no different than writing parking tickets. “We aren’t just grabbing scooters off the street and throwing them in a yard,” Borelli insists. “We write a parking ticket for every single one we have.”
Together, the two men run an operation called ScootScoop. They say that they have impounded thousands of dockless e-scooters around San Diego on behalf of business owners and landlords who are fed up with the deluge of dockless two-wheelers.
ScootScoop is a simple, low-budget concept, making use of a tow yard and flatbed truck that Heinkel already owns. Their advertising is word-of-mouth. They have no employees and no outside funding. But they seem to pose an existential threat to the multibillion-dollar scooter industry.
First came the lawsuits. Heinkel and Borelli are accused in a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court in late March of improperly impounding Bird’s scooters and then ransoming them back to the $2 billion company. Lime filed a nearly identical suit soon after.
The same companies that had raised hundreds of millions of dollars working around any local permits or regulations are now demanding protections under the California Vehicle Code, asking a judge to intervene and save their dockless scooters from ScootScoop. Depositions are scheduled to take place at the end of July.
“The people of San Diego are being bamboozled by a local tow company scheme,” Bird’s press team says in an emailed statement. “Scooter Removal aka ScootScoop, orchestrated by Talon Auto Adjusters,” the name of Heinkel’s repossession business, “is unlawfully impounding micro-mobility devices and demanding a ransom for their return.”
Ransom is a word “that we don’t really particularly like,” Borelli told me. “It’s a fake bully word that’s been made up to make our character look worse.”
Then came the chargers, or the freelance contractors who work in the cutthroat industry of charging scooters with low batteries. (Lime calls its contractors “juicers, while Bird calls them “hunters”). Heinkel and Borelli and one of their ScootScoop clients tell me that they’ve recently caught juicers breaking into a ScootScoop impound storage unit, going after the Lime scooters specifically. The juicers allegedly became violent when confronted. (“This is a disturbing report and such aggressive behavior is never tolerated on the Lime platform,” Lime said in a statement.)
But today, on this sunny afternoon in April, with scooters zipping by everywhere, it’s hard to imagine how a device that was supposed to be fun and healthy took such a dark turn.
“Their app specifically says you can ride it ‘anywhere’ and leave it ‘anywhere,’” Borelli says as he pushes a Bird scooter through the Pacific Beach neighborhood. If he sounds slightly bitter, it’s only because he owns a bike shop nearby and believes that dockless scooter companies are trying to steal his customers.
Nobody cares or tries to stop the men as they push the scooters along. There are too many scooters in circulation for anyone to miss these two. In fact, a few minutes later, a construction worker cheers Heinkel and Borelli on. “Those things are annoying!” he yells. “They started showing up at my house. I live in the suburbs, I was like...” He shakes his head disapprovingly.
Borelli says the experience is universal. “Everybody says, ‘Where did they come from?’”
Last April, Heinkel and Borelli met me on the boardwalk in matching blue collared shirts, with a crossed-out scooter embroidered on the left breast pocket, to demonstrate what it means to be a scooter-tower. They have dreams of expanding, perhaps by going to another city or working with investors. But for now, it’s just the two of them in San Diego, working around 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They have small tow yards around town and a larger lot in the suburbs that is guarded by security cameras, dogs, and razor wire. They also rolled out an app that clients can use to order a tow.
Before scooters consumed his life, Heinkel, 55, specialized in hunting down cars and other valuables south of the border. Among the many items he has retrieved on behalf of banks and other clients over his 25-year career: a celebrity’s yacht from Cabo San Lucas, a Hertz rental car that a Russian tourist left in Cancun, and a Ferrari that a con artist abandoned in Mexico City. He characterizes his repo work as a relatively low-risk job because he has the backing of the court system.
He started out as a young man looking for work after a stint in the Marines. “I discovered that I was not really good at college,” Heinkel says. “I was good at the job of taking stuff from people in the middle of the night or during the day. I can speak, I can think. I realized that it comes down to the ability to de-escalate the problem. Because nobody’s happy when you’re taking their stuff.”
Borelli, 43, has 29 percent ownership of a bike rental shop in the neighborhood, just off the boardwalk. The first time he saw dockless e-scooters, around February or March of last year, they were brazenly left outside his store.
Bird, Lime, and their supporters believe that dockless electric scooters can help reduce car dependency. But to Borelli, it seemed that the scooter industry was really trying to replace bicycles. He threw the offending scooters in the dumpster, but they were quickly replaced by more scooters.
“They’re trying to take away my customers on a daily basis,” he tells me.
The two men hit it off last year after Heinkel took his daughter for a bike ride in the neighborhood. He needed to put air in her tires and walked into Borelli’s shop. They eventually got to talking about the scooters that seemed to be taking over the boardwalk. Heinkel noted it wasn’t really safe for him to let his two-year-old ride a bike there anymore.
Borelli pointed out to Heinkel that he already owned a flatbed truck and a tow lot. The next step was obvious. Their first client was Borelli’s frustrated landlord. From there, more business followed.
“We did not seek anybody out, those property owners came to us,” Heinkel says.
For the last 54 years, Jim Bostian has managed day-to-day operations at the Crystal Pier Hotel, a hotel property of small cottages built on top of a pier in Pacific Beach. The pier is smack dab in the middle of an especially touristy strip and has a driveway for hotel guests that feeds into the boardwalk.
In the midst of the scooter explosion, Bostian noticed that people were littering the hotel driveway with scooters, blocking guests from driving in and out. He’s tried asking riders to move the scooters elsewhere. About half have agreed. The other half threw f-bombs.
Bostian says that he has nothing against scooters. He insists that he likes the idea of emissions-free transportation. But, like others in town, he’s found that dockless scooters have a disturbing ability to reflect the ugliness in people.
“It’s the people,” he says. “They don’t care. I mean, they just don’t care where they leave them.”
Not far away, a restaurant owner in Mission Beach tells me that she hired ScootScoop after riders started leaving scooters in front of a wheelchair lift that she built for her disabled customers, blocking access. And a federal lawsuit that a disability rights group filed against Bird, Lime, Razor, and the City of San Diego in January says that scooters are being left in front of wheelchair ramps, curbs, and crosswalks. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the scooters are a menace.
“I’ve almost been knocked over several times,” Alex Montoya, a San Diego-based motivational speaker who wears three prosthetic limbs, tells me. Montoya is the lead plaintiff in the disability lawsuit. “We’re not trying to eliminate the scooters. We’re trying to make sure people ride them responsibly.”
On July 1st, the City of San Diego implemented new regulations to address the scooter complaints. The regulations will require scooter companies to obtain insurance policies, free the city from all legal liability, cap speeds on the boardwalk, and obtain permits for every scooter in circulation. It’s still too early to tell whether the new regulations will make a difference.
“We are aware that people are still riding on sidewalks, we are aware that people are colliding into people and then taking off,” San Diego Police Department Lt. Shawn Takeuchi says.
Bostian, the hotel operator, called ScootScoop last year after reading an article about them in a local newspaper. He tried contacting the scooter companies first, but says they never did anything about the scooters blocking his driveway. Since then, he’s been happy with ScootScoop, and even let them keep some of the impounded scooters in a storage unit on his property.
But information about where the scooters are stored seems to have made it to the juicers —the freelancers paid a small fee to find scooters with low batteries, charge them overnight, and then drop them back off in the streets. Bostian has noticed that some Limes have gone missing from storage, and he believes that juicers have been cutting the brake cables on scooters to free them from impound in the middle of the night.
About a month ago, Bostian says that he caught a juicer red-handed, trying to walk off with a scooter that had already been impounded. Bostian ordered him off his property. They got into an argument, and then the juicer pushed him while he was walking away.
A few weeks later, on June 22nd, Bostian came to work at 5:15 in the morning. Heinkel and Borelli were there, and they told him the police were on the way. He remembers they looked like they had been beaten up.
When Heinkel and Borelli lead me on a scooter-towing tour, it takes about ten minutes to find a dozen or so scooters parked on a property belonging to a hotel owner they work with. They write “tickets” in their app, pick up the scooters, and bring them to their nearby tow closet. It’s around noon, but dozens of scooters are already impounded, neatly organized by brand. Their larger lot in the suburbs, the one guarded with razor wire and dogs, holds the thousands of leftover scooters that Bird and Lime are refusing to pick up, on the basis that ScootScoop is demanding “excessive fees.”
Heinkel counters the charge is far lower than what tow companies typically ask for when they are towing cars. ScootScoop charges the scooter companies $30 for pick-up and an additional $2 for each day that the scooter is in storage, capping the daily fees off after a month.
Initially, Bird agreed to play along, after ScootScoop had impounded 1,800 Bird scooters from July through November of 2018. When Bird finally showed up to collect them, it wasn’t a contentious meeting. In fact, company representatives handed over a $40,000 check to cover the towing fees. Then they all took friendly pictures together.
Afterward, Bird sent ScootScoop an invitation to invoice through Bird Pays, the app that the company uses to pay its contractors. In their lawsuit, Bird admits that it initially paid the $40,000 fee because the company was confused about its rights.
In hindsight, “it looked like they thought we were going to go away, and we weren’t going to do this anymore, so they tried to play nice guy with us,” Borelli says. He submitted invoices, as instructed, but Bird never paid them again. So ScootScoop stopped releasing its scooters. Lime also discussed a possible settlement with ScootScoop, Borelli says, but never followed through.
In its complaint, Bird claims they have learned that ScootScoop is actually grabbing scooters from public sidewalks and other city property where they aren’t authorized to do business. (Heinkel and Borelli dispute this.)
“Defendants’ improper impoundment scheme has caused—and continues to cause—Bird harm,” Bird says in its complaint. “Bird has suffered—and continues to suffer—lost business, not to mention reputational harm, from having fewer scooters in circulation.”
Bird is demanding that ScootScoop stop doing business, release all Bird scooters, and pay Bird back four times the amount of the fees that they are attempting to bill Bird for the scooters. The company is also demanding punitive damages and “any profits made by Defendants” in the course of their entire scooter-towing career.
Borelli says that the towing has hardly made a dent in the flow of scooters in town. “They have more devices out there than anybody possibly could think.” (The City of San Diego does not have an official count of how many scooters are out in the wild because they are still reviewing permitting applications.)
As we walk toward the Pacific Beach boardwalk, a perfectly tan 20-something who looks like he is on his way to the gym passes by. Heinkel says the man works for Wheels and flags him down, to confirm that ScootScoop gets along with the young contractors who work for big scooter. “Keeping it clean,” the Wheels worker says of the scooter towers.
But not all of their interactions are so friendly.
On June 22nd, hours before hotel operator Jim Bostian saw into the ScootScoop guys, Heinkel was at the Crystal Pier property in the middle of the night to pick up an order of shipping containers to use as security at his impound lots. He saw that two Lime juicers were already there. They had broken into his storage unit and were holding scooters, he says. Heinkel confronted them, trying to grab the scooters back. He says that one of the workers, a man who towered over Heinkel, punched him a few times. Then he got on the scooter and started riding it toward Heinkel, who says he refused to back down and, as a result, was run over by the scooter. Borelli, who showed up shortly after the fight had started, says he got sideswiped. In a video that Heinkel captured partially of the fight, a man’s voice is heard saying that he works for Lime, and a Lime scooter is clearly visible in the video.
“We are looking into the incident and will ensure this individual is removed from our platform, and we stand ready to support however we can,” a Lime spokesperson said in a statement.
(Lt. Takeuchi with the San Diego Police Department confirms that Heinkel filed a police report describing a fight over stolen scooters, but the report does not name a specific scooter brand.)
“All over something that is $4.50 each,” Heinkel says.
Heinkel sounds confident that the new shipping containers will keep the juicers away for good. And neither he nor Borelli sound very worried about the lawsuit. They’ve responded to Bird’s lawsuit with a counter-complaint, and their attorney tells me that their defense will focus on private property rights because there is some ambiguity over whether scooters are considered vehicles under the California Vehicle Code.
When I call them in July, Heinkel and Borelli say that they recently celebrated impounding their 10,360th scooter with some donuts and large coffees from 7/11. Then they got back to work.
“If you take all the BS that they’ve thrown out, and you take our BS, and you take it down, it’s a very simple concept,” Heinkel says. “They have taken their stuff and placed it on someone else’s property without permission.”
“Now that’s them, and here’s us. We’re two guys who went to the property owners and got permission with that property owner to remove that stuff off their property. That’s all it is.”