This article originally appeared on VICE US.
One morning at the end of May, Mark Miretsky awoke in his San Francisco apartment and groggily browsed his phone. There was no rush to get up. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been laid off from his job at the bikeshare company JUMP, which was owned by Uber, along with hundreds of other people.
While still lazing in bed, he opened the Slack with more than 400 of JUMP’s laid off staff, and he saw something that hurt him even more than the layoffs. The JUMP bikes were being destroyed by the thousands and someone was posting videos of it on Twitter.
At first, Miretsky couldn’t bring himself to watch. He spent eight years of his life, often working 100-hour weeks to the point of nauseous exhaustion, to get people to ride those bikes. He did this because he believed in bicycles, and that they are worth riding.
Miretsky's family left the Soviet Union while his mother was pregnant with him. They briefly lived in Italy but couldn’t afford any mode of transportation other than a single bike. His dad pedaled, his mom rode side saddle on the rear rack, and his brother, just a toddler at the time, sat in the basket. Miretsky grew up hearing these stories, and even if he didn’t realize it at the time, he said it taught him bicycles are the cheapest, most efficient, and equitable way to get around. He would end up spending most of his adult life working with bicycles, caring about them so much he can’t even bring himself to get rid of any of his seven bikes.
In one of the videos, viewers can hear the claw crunching the frames and baskets while lifting the JUMP bikes. That was enough. Miretsky didn’t need to watch a second time.
“It kind of crushes one’s heart,” Miretsky said. He had difficulty putting into words exactly how he felt, but repeated what one of his former coworkers told him. To the die-hard bike enthusiasts who worked at JUMP, destroying bikes is like burning books. “To me, and to many of us [who worked at JUMP] the bike is not an object to a means of a business. It has a soul.”
Few, if any, of JUMP’s former employees were shocked by the videos. To some, it even felt a fitting, if upsetting, coda to a troubled two years under Uber’s stewardship.
Motherboard spoke to a dozen former JUMP employees about their time at the company, most under the condition of anonymity because they signed non-disclosure agreements in order to receive severance and extended health care during a global pandemic. Former JUMP employees who agreed to speak on the record did so under the condition they not talk about the time the company was owned by Uber. They described remarkably similar experiences, in which JUMP, a previously thrifty company, with a culture that had a deep commitment to a shared sense of purpose gave way to Uber’s scale-obsessed model. The early promises of bikeshare for the world and replacing ridehail trips with bike journeys only partially materialized, but it came with unsustainable inefficiencies and waste. Uber bought JUMP in 2018 and two years later sold it to Lime, a changed and broken company. To these employees, the literal destruction of the bikes was a metaphor for the destruction of the operation they’d worked so hard to build.
Uber’s unrelenting pursuit of scale created all sorts of problems for those working on the bikeshare systems on the ground. In cities with high rates of theft or vandalism, the same people hired to retrieve, charge, and fix bikes were also responsible for recovering stolen ones, an occasionally dicey proposition. To address this, Uber hired private security teams, which three employees referred to as “hired goons,” to assist in getting the stolen bikes back. One employee from Providence, Rhode Island described a scene in which one “hired goon” wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying handcuffs and pepper spray “tackled” a black teenage girl riding a JUMP bike. The employee said it was something he would “never forget” and that “the optics didn’t look good, as people would say.” An Uber spokesperson said the company has no records of such an incident taking place and this account is “wholly inaccurate” because JUMP technicians and the security teams accompanying them were instructed not to forcibly remove anyone from the bikes or “engage in aggressive behavior.”
While hardly typical of JUMP’s operations, the incident—which occurred last year during a rash of thefts enabled by a faulty bike lock design—exemplifies just how far the company strayed from its original mission of getting people of all walks of life onto bikes. JUMP used to be a company that held countless community meetings in low-income neighborhoods prior to launching in a new city to make sure they were addressing everyone’s needs and offered low-income residents virtually unlimited biking for just a few dollars per month.
But JUMP’s rise and fall is not just about Uber—which only owned the company for two out of its 10 years of existence—or even just about bikeshare. It's about the role cities play in determining their futures, how much of that role has been usurped by a handful of people with a lot of money, and the perils of trying to be the good guy.
Even with everything that’s happened, many former JUMP employees still think selling the company to Uber was the right decision. Had it not, one former employee told Motherboard, “the company might have saved its soul, but died much younger.”
Ryan Rzepecki became a cycling evangelist when he borrowed his roommate’s bike one summer day in 2005 while living in New York City's East Village. It made getting around the city so much easier and more pleasant, even though at the time New York didn’t have anything resembling safe bike infrastructure.
On a trip to Paris, Rzepecki came across the Velib bikeshare system. Although Velib has had its problems, to Rzepecki’s eyes it was a marvel: tens of thousands of bikes for Parisians to use for a very small fee. No worrying about locking the bike, storing it, maintenance, or repairs. Just unlock it, ride it, dock it, and be on your way.
But Rzepecki had an idea for a different kind of bikeshare system. He wanted one without docks, where people could begin and end their rides anywhere they like. He thought this would be the key to unlocking cycling for the masses. In 2010, he started Social Bicycles.
The original business model of Social Bicycles (SoBi) was different from the one it would adopt after re-branding as JUMP eight years later. Instead of going directly to people, it sold its proprietary bikes and docking stations to cities, who would then contract with another third party to operate the bikeshare system.
The key to this model was SoBi’s quasi-docked model, in which every bike had a GPS unit and a built-in lock. Riders had to lock the bike to something, and were encouraged to lock the bikes to SoBi’s docking stations, but could use regular bike racks if they wanted.
“It’s probably good I didn’t have a technical background,” Rzepecki told Motherboard, “because if I knew how hard it would be I probably never would have attempted it.” It was not a simple or easy business. Back then, cities would put out Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that announced they were interested in a bikeshare system, triggering a two-year process that, if all went well, resulted in a bikeshare system. The RFP process ensured a deep partnership with the city that would minimize long-term uncertainty or community outrage over bike rack locations. For both SoBi and the cities in which they worked, this trade-off was worth it, because they were in it for the long haul.
SoBi hired urban planners to help cities with the expense of figuring out where new bike racks should go. This involved not only painstakingly drawing architectural renderings for hundreds of bike racks, but presenting those drawings to local community groups to hear their feedback. As a general rule, they drew up plans for about three times as many racks as they would ultimately install, knowing local community groups tended to reject about two-thirds of them.
While this approach to a bikeshare system was complicated, time-consuming, and expensive, Rzepecki and his early team thought it was the best way to forge the kind of relationships between the city government, local bike advocates, and casual riders to allow bikesharing to thrive in the long run.
Likewise, Rzepecki wanted SoBi’s bikes to be comfortable and fun to ride. They debated the merits of certain bolts over others, the size of the baskets, and the best distance between the handlebars for the most comfortable ride for the most people. SoBi’s designer, Nick Foley, and the other designers not only took into account the rider experience, but also that of the mechanics charged with fixing and maintaining the bikes. They standardized parts, reduced the number of different bolts and screws as much as possible, and put thought into how to make flat tires easy to replace. The bikes were not to be disposable objects, but permanent, rideable street art.
“Ryan’s goal was the bicycle comes first,” another former employee told Motherboard. “He brings that kind of attitude, that I want to make my city better.”
All that attention to detail notwithstanding, in the early days SoBi’s technology barely worked. One of its first clients in 2012, the San Francisco International Airport, wanted a bikeshare program for employees to use during their lunch breaks. But the bikes barely worked. Miretsky remembers having to run around the airport to reboot the bikes’ onboard computers, which he described as “super 1.0 early beta technology that wasn’t working” in which the GPS and computer unit was attached to the bike with velcro.
There wasn’t very much money in the bikeshare world then. The company was operating hand-to-mouth, people were forgoing paychecks some weeks, and everyone was working on shoestring budgets. One employee recalled the “SoBi flop houses” where six of them would live in a two-bedroom Airbnb to save on costs. The unlucky ones who didn’t get a bedroom would sleep on the floor; more than one former SoBi employee recommended if I ever find myself in a similar situation, I snag the space under the dining room table so that anyone getting up in the middle of the night doesn’t step on me.
With this shared sacrifice came shared responsibility. The company structure was remarkably flat. Once a month, everyone would get on a call and make decisions together by consensus. People’s titles only vaguely aligned with their actual jobs. “Things got done because everyone wanted them to get done, not because someone was assigning them or there were super-clear expectations,” one employee described it. “You just went to wherever you could supply the most-needed help.”
Over time, SoBi worked out the kinks, and each contract got slightly bigger than the last. Its big breakout came in 2016, when 1,000 of its bikes launched in Portland’s Biketown program, sponsored by Nike. It was the company's biggest launch to date and also its most successful. It was also the first year SoBi was profitable. Things were looking up, until the people at SoBi started hearing about these bikeshare companies out of China.
“Here’s where the story changes,” Rzepecki said. “Just as we were figuring out how to do bikeshare and make it work, the entire landscape changed.”
Up to that point, the bikeshare world was a small one, an industry of government contractors and their suppliers. Companies couldn’t be neatly divided between partners and competitors. Social Bicycles sold its hardware to Motivate, which operates the biggest docked bikeshare systems around the country, to operate Biketown, even though SoBi and Motivate would compete for contracts elsewhere (to complicate the dynamic, Motivate was purchased by Lyft around the same time JUMP was bought by Uber). It was a small world, in part because it had to be; there wasn’t enough money in bikeshare to make it any bigger.
Which is why when two Beijing-based bikeshare firms, Ofo and Mobike, expanded to the United States right around the same time Biketown launched, it blew up everything the bikeshare world had known.
Rather than work closely with cities over years, Ofo and Mobike parachuted in, got permission to launch a bike share by shoveling money at cities, and then did it. They also introduced a fully dockless model known as “free lock,” in which riders didn’t have to lock their bikes to anything after finishing a ride. They could leave them wherever they wanted, including in the middle of sidewalks and strewn across lawns.
“At least initially, there was this hint of hope that this big dumb app company was actually helping push us towards a more sustainable transportation ecosystem.”
This went against everything SoBi believed in. It not only was a short-sighted strategy that was sure to create conflict with city officials and communities—the very people SoBi felt were integral to any bikeshare systems’s success—but it sent the wrong message about the bikes themselves.
“Freelocking turns the vehicles into trash and blocks the sidewalk,” one former JUMP employee said, “which is both bad for business and bad for cities.” It turns bikes into obstacles for people with mobility issues, the exact opposite of what bikes are supposed to be. And it sends the message that the bikes are disposable, have little value, and belong to no one.
But it was not the free lock element of the Ofo and MoBike model that changed everything, at least not directly. Without the need to go through the lengthy RFP process or site docks, Ofo, Mobike, and their countless imitators could grow as quickly as their bank accounts permitted. It was catnip for the type of venture capital investors who love exponential growth charts.
Suddenly, dockless bikeshare became the trendy investment. From October 2016 through July 2017, Ofo raised $1.28 billion in two funding rounds, according to Crunchbase. Mobike raised more than $800 million. In October 2017, the newly-founded Lime (then called LimeBike) raised $50 million. To Social Bicycles, this was an unimaginable amount of money. Up to 2016, SoBi had raised only a few million dollars.
“It became a feeling of there is no way we can succeed anymore,” Miretsky said. “We were playing checkers and it suddenly became chess.”
“They would go into markets we were just in with RFPs and said ‘we’ll pay you. How many bikes do you need? We’ll give you more,’” Miretsky recalled. “Cities said well great, this is no longer a problem for us to solve, the business community has solved it.”
Almost overnight, Rzepecki said SoBi lost 25 percent of its revenue. For sexy startups like Mobike and Ofo, a 25 percent revenue drop would be a tough pill to swallow. For SoBi, it was poison. Thanks to overseas investors flooding the market with cheap bikes, the time of working closely with cities to build a sustainable bikeshare system was over. The RFP approach, everything SoBi had built its business around, was dead.
SoBi pivoted to be a permit-based dockless bikeshare company like the others. But it resisted what it viewed as an ideological non-starter and it did not succumb to the free lock model. Just as in the SoBi days, riders would still have to end the ride by locking the bike to something.
Moreover, SoBi didn’t need to compromise on its deeper philosophy because Rzepecki had an ace up his sleeve. For two years, SoBi had been secretly developing an electric bike, where a battery-powered motor helps the rider pedal, making bike riding an effortless endeavor even up the steepest of hills and longest of distances. Former employees credited Rzepecki and Foley for having the foresight to know the entire industry would eventually shift to e-bikes, and the only way JUMP could survive was to get there first. And it did.
In the summer of 2017, as JUMP was looking for investors to stay afloat, Uber invited two JUMP employees in to demonstrate the e-bike, sparking conflicted feelings among the JUMP staff. This was right at the height of an Uber public relations disaster, as its co-founder Travis Kalanick floundered in the days leading up to his resignation. At this stage, Uber was virtually synonymous with spoiled rich kids flouting laws and operating solely according to their own internal code. Among the JUMP staff, Uber was regarded as wasteful and environmentally irresponsible at best and downright evil at worst.
Some former employees believe JUMP ultimately took the meeting as an intelligence-gathering operation, others as an implicit admission of JUMP’s precarious condition despite the distasteful prospect of working with the company so many of them loathed.
In any case, two JUMP employees rode the e-bikes to Uber’s headquarters on Market Street, where Dmitry Shevelenko and Jahan Khanna, the duo behind Uber’s micromobility and transit expansion, took them for a test ride.
“This was like the first time using an iPhone.” Shevelenko told Motherboard. “It just feels magical.” He had demo’d other bikeshare e-bikes in recent months, but the JUMP bike was far superior. Instead of having a motor that kicked into gear providing an unwanted jolt, JUMP’s e-bikes sensed how hard a rider pedaled and increased the motor power to match what the rider is doing. It felt like a partnership between human and bike, not a human ceding total control to a machine. “It was almost like a superpower,” Shevelenko recalled, “like this bike is connected to your body.”
Shevelenko and Khanna viewed the e-bike as a perfect complement to Uber’s ridehailing business. Insofar as it would cannibalize Uber trips, it would be shorter city trips that weren’t profitable anyways. The e-bike would not only be cheaper for riders, but also quicker during rush hours in the dense urban areas where Uber is most popular. And Uber wanted JUMP’s superior product. Shevelenko figured JUMP had a year’s head start on every other dockless e-bike. Paired with Uber’s resources, they thought it would be hard for anyone else to catch up.
After some brief negotiating, the companies initially formed a partnership and Uber connected JUMP with the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures to keep the company afloat. Starting in January 2018, SoBi officially rebranded as JUMP and its bikes would be shown as a rental option in the Uber app. Four months later, Uber acquired JUMP for close to $200 million.
It was, undoubtedly, an odd pair, not just in mission but in corporate culture. Many of JUMP’s staff were self-described hippies, a far cry from Uber’s bro culture and no-holds-barred approach to business. But, the acquisition made sense as one between two companies struggling to figure out what they were doing at a time when the old way was no longer going to cut it. Uber had to clean up its act and put on a good face for investors in a run up to a public offering, while JUMP had to find a model that worked in the dockless world of VC capital.
On a personal level, eight years of bikeshare startup life had taken its toll on Rzepecki and the original SoBi crew. To illustrate the point, Miretsky said that when he visited the New York office where Rzepecki was based, he had stopped buying breakfast, because he knew Rzepecki would take two bites of a breakfast sandwich, vomit it up from nerves, and then give Miretsky the rest of the sandwich.
When asked about this, Rzepecki confirmed his stress manifested with various physical symptoms around that time, and that “2017 was particularly hard.”
“I think it’s really on the right course now and [Uber’s then-new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi] believes the way we approach working with cities and our vision for partnering with cities” aligns with Uber’s mission, Rzepecki told TechCrunch when the acquisition was announced. “That was important for me and his desire to do things the right way. This is a great outcome and gives me a chance to bring my entire vision to the entire world.”
“At least initially, there was this hint of hope that this big dumb app company was actually helping push us towards a more sustainable transportation ecosystem,” a former JUMP employee said. “And then they fucked it up.”
Accounts differ on precisely how long it took Uber to undermine everything JUMP had previously been about. Some former employees said it happened virtually immediately. Others described a more gradual process that took a few weeks. But they unanimously agreed it didn’t take long at all for JUMP to stop being JUMP.
Not only were JUMP employees no longer working on a shoestring budget, they barely had any budgets at all. Sleeping under the dining room table gave way to $400 per night hotel rooms. Like the Ofos and MoBikes they long decried, JUMP was now buying as many bikes it could get its hands on.
For a split second, JUMP was “the hot new thing” at Uber, as one former employee put it. Khosrowshahi talked it up during company all-hands meetings and in the press. He came to the warehouse where JUMP built new prototypes.
"During rush hour, it is very inefficient for a one-ton hulk of metal to take one person 10 blocks," Khosrowshahi said at the time. With JUMP, "we're able to shape behavior in a way that's a win for the user. It's a win for the city. Short-term financially, maybe it's not a win for us, but strategically, long term we think that is exactly where we want to head."
One of the first signs that the acquisition was not going as planned came just two months after the acquisition when Uber put longtime employee Rachael Holt in charge of the New Mobility unit. In one of her first meetings with the JUMP team, Holt made it very clear that she was in charge, as multiple employees recalled. This directly undermined what Rzepecki had publicly said when the acquisition was announced, that JUMP would remain independent of Uber. Now, the employees were being told that wasn’t the case. When asked about this reversal, an Uber spokesperson described Holt as “a longtime Uber executive with experience growing a mobility business.” Holt did not respond to a list of questions sent by Motherboard.
"There was also an awareness that this was no longer some private company, that it was fucking Uber now."
Holt brought an Uber 1.0 approach to bikeshare, one that mimicked what companies like MoBike and Ofo were doing (MoBike co-founder Wang Xiaofeng had previously been general manager of Uber’s Shanghai operations). They flooded the streets with bikes under the philosophy that any second a bike is not on the street, it's losing money. They expanded to new markets and hired so many people so fast some employees spent half their time in hiring meetings and prospective employee interviews. Teams doubled or tripled in size within months, only to find they were now overstaffed. Bike mechanics at the main warehouse would have thousands of bikes to build that were just delivered from China, but local mechanics in the cities where JUMP operated didn’t have spare parts to fix the bikes on the street.
In other words, JUMP employees felt Uber was applying a software business mentality to bikeshare. It was, to JUMP’s longtime employees, a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of business they were in. Uber was running JUMP with the mindset that anything that’s broken can be patched, but, as one employee put it, “a firmware update can’t fix a bike chain.”
“Like any startup (whether inside of Uber or out), JUMP’s early days can be characterized as scrappy,” an Uber spokesperson said. “JUMP was scaling very quickly. When we bought JUMP they were a very small company with a fleet of only 500 e-bikes in San Francisco. When we merged with Lime a few weeks ago, we had tens of thousands of e-bikes and scooters in 30 cities around the world.”
Otherwise an impressive feat of engineering, the bikes JUMP released in early 2019 under Uber had one critical flaw. JUMP replaced the sturdy if bulky U-lock with a cable lock in order to make the bikes easier to secure. But the cable lock wasn’t robust. It was a critical oversight, one that highlighted how far JUMP had strayed from its roots, since any New York City bicyclist knows a cable lock is an open invitation for theft. All someone had to do was flip the 75-pound bike over and the cable would snap under its own momentum (there was also a method using a hammer that took more finesse). With a few well-placed blows, thieves could easily disable the GPS unit and be on their way with a (very heavy) bike.
While every city experienced some degree of theft, Providence, Rhode Island experienced among the most because, for whatever reason, stealing JUMP bikes became a form of sport for the city’s teens.
“We didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem until it was too late,” one former JUMP employee familiar with the situation told Motherboard. “Hundreds and hundreds of bikes were getting stolen.”
In emails obtained by the Providence Journal, JUMP’s operations manager in Providence, Alex Kreuger, told the city that, in one weekend in July 2019, 150-200 bikes were vandalized out of a fleet of about 1,000 bikes.
“Someone brandished a gun on a field tech, kids tried to steal bikes directly from our warehouse, riders reported attempts by people to steal the bike as they were riding them,” Kreuger wrote.
In another instance, according to a source, an employee trying to retrieve a bike reportedly had to wield a broken kickstand to fend off some kids swinging a 2x4 at him.
In the fall, Uber hired a private security firm to ride along with the field technicians in order to retrieve the stolen bikes. This didn’t strike any of the employees as especially odd, since none of them had signed up to be fighting kids in the streets. One field tech who spoke to Motherboard estimated that "five to 10" instances resulted in private security workers physically restraining people while the bikes were being recovered, as was the case with the bulletproof vest-clad rent-a-cop tackling a kid riding a bike.
Among other things, the vandalism made it impossible for JUMP to have 90 percent of its bikes on the street at all times, as its contract with the city required. Sometimes, one former employee said, they’d have fewer than 300 bikes, or less than 30 percent of the fleet, on the street.
In August, JUMP pulled its bikes off the streets of Providence for what it claimed was a temporary period, but the bikes never returned. In October, the field technicians, who had ridden around with the security guys for weeks, received an email at the end of their shift telling them not to bother coming in anymore; they were all fired. The security guys got an email at the end of the shift, too; their new job was to take over bike retrieval, but their first order of business was to escort the field technicians out of the building.
At least one former Providence employee thinks the vandalism could not be disconnected from the Uber acquisition.
“There was also an awareness that this was no longer some private company, that it was fucking Uber now,” they told Motherboard. “This is owned by a corporation that doesn’t care about bettering anyone’s fucking community or whatever, so people saw an opportunity there.”
Whether or not that was the case, JUMP had bigger problems than just Providence, and Uber had bigger problems than just JUMP. After breakneck growth and an IPO in the spring of 2019, Uber was under more pressure than ever to show it could be profitable. And thanks to its growth-at-all costs approach to bikeshare, JUMP was leaking cash.
But it wasn’t the financial losses that bothered JUMP employees the most. It was the gradual erosion of everything that got them to sacrifice so much for the company in the first place. Morale tanked as people slowly noticed they were busting their asses to hit growth metrics. The joy of cycling and creating a community good was not only secondary to that, it was becoming a memory.
“We went from putting 45-pound steel plates with 35-pound racks down on street corners where we had paid surveyors to stand and count people riding and locking bikes and working very closely with municipal transportation services, universities, and community groups, to, from what I understand, basically offering cities as much money as they needed to launch as quickly as possible and putting as many bikes on the curb as quickly as possible wherever we could,” one former employee said. “That’s the same approach that Bird used for scooters, that Lime used for their bikes, and Ofo used for their bikes in Texas and got in so much trouble for. And that’s why they’re trash. And that’s why JUMP became trash.”
In September 2019, JUMP employees were transferred to a new entity called Sobi LLC, which some employees took as an indication they were being broken off for a sale. An Uber spokesperson said it was because “As JUMP grew its footprint, so did the need for more focused business support for day-to-day operations.”
Four months later, at the beginning of 2020, Rzepecki and a handful of other original Social Bicycle employees left. The following months would result in a cascading series of layoffs in which Uber let 25 percent of its staff go.
At the beginning of last month, The Information reported that Uber was leading a $170 million funding round in Lime in a deal that would involve transferring JUMP to them. This was news to the JUMP staff. In an all-hands call that day, Khosrowshahi refused to directly answer a question about JUMP’s future, which both irked and worried its employees. An Uber spokesperson said, as a public company, Khosrowshahi could not discuss the transaction before it finalized. The next day, Uber laid off nearly everyone at JUMP. Because it was in the middle of the pandemic, the laid off had one hour to say goodbye to their friends over Slack. Then their computers turned off.
Whatever comes of JUMP under Lime’s stewardship, it will be without the people who made JUMP what it was. Lime was founded in 2017 by two former venture capital executives who quickly bailed on bikes to hop onto the scooter fad. It even experimented with a carsharing service. Lime obtained the intellectual property rights for the newest versions of the JUMP bikes and scooters, but, as of now, none of the people who designed or built them.
The big question facing the bikeshare industry—and its scooter-share offshoots—is whether the business can ever be profitable. To date, the answer is no. Lime lost some $300 million last year while its major competitor, Bird—founded by a former Lyft and Uber executive—isn't faring much better. While 2020 doesn’t look poised to turn industry fortunes around due to the global pandemic, it is a testament to how poorly managed the micromobility industry has been that ceasing operations may, in fact, be a blessing in disguise for companies that haven’t figured out how to run a service without bleeding cash.
Unlike software, transportation is a deliberate business, sometimes painfully so. To tech executives, this appears to be a flaw, an inefficiency to disrupt. No doubt the RFP process and other regulations around the transportation industry can be improved, but there’s a reason transportation businesses move slowly. It costs too much to screw up, both in money and in reputation. Useful mass transportation doesn’t suddenly appear. It is carefully nurtured from a tiny seedling of a good idea to a fully-formed organism that breathes life into a city. It is a process that takes time and effort and patience as well as money.
For all their shortcomings, this is something the SoBi people knew well. It is also something Uber could never understand, because it has always rejected the premise that it’s in the transportation business. It’s been telling itself and regulators since its inception it is merely a business-to-business software application so it can skirt employment regulations that would force it to make all of its drivers employees. But that deception became so ingrained in company culture that it conducted itself as a software company even when it was purchasing and fixing bicycles by the tens of thousands. On the most basic level, it’s impossible to succeed when you don’t know what line of work you’re in.
On top of that, transportation companies have to work with the cities in which they operate whether they like it or not. To several of the employees Motherboard spoke to, this was the single biggest and most consequential culture shift after the acquisition. Whenever there was a problem with a city, Uber postured for a fight, which went against every instinct JUMP had.
“We wanted to work with [the cities] and build trust,” one former employee summarized. “Uber wanted to steamroll them.”
(“We disagree,” an Uber spokesman said. “JUMP worked diligently to address sidewalk riding and parking clutter through both operational changes and investing in innovative technology.”)
And the whole scheme was built on a faulty premise, that putting more and more bikes on the road in more and more cities would eventually result in profits, even though the company lost money on each ride. They imitated the strategy that MoBike and Ofo used to blow up the bikeshare industry—which itself imitated the strategy Uber used to become a global behemoth—because that’s what investors wanted to see.
But by the end of 2018, the very strategy JUMP would later imitate was clearly not working. MoBike was sold to Chinese neighborhood services company Meituan-Dianping and retreated from foreign markets (its European operations were spun off, so some MoBikes are still on the road there). In June of last year, a Chinese court found Ofo “has basically no assets,” according to Quartz, and couldn’t pay off its debts. Photos of mass bike graves of the erstwhile bikeshare boom went viral.
But the damage was done, because the perception of what bikeshare should be had been irrevocably altered. It was no longer a transportation business; it was a tech business, and everything that brought along with it.
Even at the time Ofo and MoBike were getting handed billions in cash, the JUMP people didn’t know what to think, because they were still thinking like bike people. “We didn't believe the unit economics worked,” Miretsky recalled, “Then we heard the companies said the unit economics worked, and we thought well they couldn't be lying, we wouldn't lie. And then it turned out later they were probably lying.”
After the videos of the bikes getting destroyed surfaced, several former JUMP employees wondered if there was something they could do to save as many bikes as they could. They asked that I not disclose who they were so as not to jeopardize the NDA they signed with Uber.
With some help from current Uber employees, they were able to save some. They will get donated to various groups and organizations. The Bike Share Museum in Florida got five, but an Uber spokesperson did not say who got the rest. But multiple sources told Motherboard that, in total, they saved 5,298 bikes. They each knew the exact number.