MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Google has built a massive business organizing the world's information, but it's having a lot of trouble keeping track of its own bicycles.
Google maintains roughly 1,100 free, multicolored two-wheelers, known as Gbikes, for its employees to get around on its sprawling campus here. The program has inspired copycats across Silicon Valley and beyond.
But Google's bikes consistently go missing from its campus -- between 100 and 250 a week, the company estimates. The bikes have shown up at local schools, in neighbors' lawns, at the bottom of the town creek and on the roof of O'Malley's Sports Pub. One turned up in a TV commercial for the cosmetics brand Garnier; a Google employee noticed it when it aired.
The disappearances often aren't the work of ordinary thieves, however. Many residents of Mountain View, a city of 80,000 that has effectively become Google's company town, see the employee perk as a community service.
"It's like a friendly gesture," said Sharon Veach, a 68-year-old resident who rides the bikes several times a week. "They don't really want us to use it, but it's OK if you do." Ms. Veach said that when a bike is available at the train station she rides it 10 minutes to her house, and then keeps it overnight behind her gate. The next morning, she rides it back to the station, where she catches the train to her job at Google rival Oracle Corp. "You know, I rent it for a day."
Even Mountain View Mayor Ken Rosenberg admits he once rode a Gbike to go see a movie after a meeting on Google's campus.
Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., can afford it. It won't say what it pays for its bikes, which have yellow frames, red baskets and green and blue wheels. But such cruisers typically cost $100 to $300, meaning even losing a hundred or so a week would be barely a bump in the road for a company sitting on more than $100 billion of cash.
Still, Google is trying to slow the losses. Late last year, it started adding GPS trackers to the bikes, which revealed thieves were taking them as far as Mexico and Fairbanks, Alaska. (The bikes have previously been spotted in the snow in New England and the dust at Burning Man, the arts festival in the Nevada desert.)
After resisting locks for years, believing they would inconvenience employees, Google is testing versions that employees could unlock with their smartphones.
And a team of 30 Google contractors in five vans retrieve Gbikes across the region. After a spate of bikes in the town creek, they now carry waders and grappling hooks to fish them out.
While the Gbikes have small signs that instruct riders to leave them at Google and call a hotline if found off campus, the company's stance isn't always clear. "My daughter came home from third grade and asked me, 'Are we supposed to be riding these or not?' " said Jeral Poskey, a Google transportation executive.
Mr. Poskey said he carries a lock to secure bikes he finds around town. When he tries that in front of his family, they protest. "They're like, 'Well somebody got there; you're going to leave somebody stranded!' " he said.
Google started Silicon Valley's first corporate bike program a decade ago. There are now at least 16 others across the U.S., including at Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Walmart Inc., according to Bikes Make Life Better, which supplies corporate bikes. Many firms lock their bikes, at least overnight, or require them to be checked out.
Google, a company obsessed with data, says that its new GPS trackers -- now on roughly a third of the bikes -- show that each day the bikes take an average 12 trips and travel 6 miles. Still, Google isn't entirely sure how many bikes it loses outright. From July to November, Google recovered between 70 and 190 bikes a week, or roughly two-thirds of the bikes reported off campus. The other third weren't there when contractors arrived to retrieve them.
Google managers say they struggle to reduce thefts because they often can't tell whether riders are among the company's 20,000 employees in Mountain View. Mr. Poskey said he once confronted what he thought was a homeless woman on a Gbike. "I mean if I could describe her, you would agree with me," he said. "She looked all panicked, and then she showed me her Google badge."
Mountain View Police are hands off. "We don't have the manpower to stop every person and say, 'Are you a Google employee?' Nor should we," a police spokeswoman said.
Google says disappearances spike after concerts at Shoreline Amphitheatre, the outdoor music venue adjacent to its campus. "I don't know why, but all the country concerts have a heyday with our bikes," said Gbike operations chief Terry Mac.
Joseph Zidarevich, a 58-year-old marketer from Mountain View with a surfer's cadence and shaggy hair, said he first encountered the bikes when three appeared on his lawn one morning eight years ago. He couldn't find a phone number for Google so "we drove them up to the Google campus and just threw them out of the back," he recalled.
Many neighbors ride them, he said, "from whole families with their grandmothers -- literally the grandpa and grandma and all their grandkids were riding Google bikes down the road -- to the Sureño gang kids." And some stash them, he said. After he spotted an elderly neighbor with one, Mr. Zidarevich said he asked him what he planned to do with it. "He goes, 'Oh, I've got a whole garage full of them.' "
At Red Rock Coffee in downtown Mountain View, Mr. Zidarevich and Ms. Veach, the Oracle employee, clashed over their opposing views on Gbikes. Mr. Zidarevich said he dislikes that his neighbors feel entitled to them because "Google owes them somehow, someway."
Ms. Veach said the Gbikes are "a reward for having to deal with the buses" carrying Google employees that barrel down her street each morning. "I ride a bicycle...to balance it out," she said.
After finishing her decaf soy latte, Ms. Veach walked outside and came across a Gbike missing a seat. Because the bike was damaged, she said she would leave it. A moment later, she changed her mind: "Well, maybe I'll ride it for a few minutes." Then she hopped on and rode out of view.
Write to Jack Nicas at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 05, 2018 12:24 ET (17:24 GMT)