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Why electric bikes can provide a big jolt to bikeshare systems

Offering better range and faster rides, electric bikes can help more commuters ditch their cars

A Jump electric bike. While electric bikes, and integrating electric bikes into bikeshare programs, is still a niche mode of transportation, it’s growing across the globe.
A Jump electric bike. While electric bikes, and integrating electric bikes into bikeshare programs, is still a niche mode of transportation, it’s growing across the globe.

Based on hype alone, the rise of dockless electric scooters appears to be the most meaningful shift towards a more multimodal, less car-centric future this year. But advocates for electric bikes believe that the growth of new, shared options for boosted bikes suggest they’re also prime to play a role in the evolution of urban transportation.

During a press conference held by the North American Bikeshare Association yesterday, industry advocates presented a case for the rise in electric bikeshare, and how bikes powered by batteries, often called pedal-assist bikes, can integrate into and improve existing transportation networks.

“If the end goal is more cycling and more trips made on a bike, we should all be aligned towards that goal,” said Ryan Rzepecki, founder and CEO of Jump, a dockless electric bike startup that was recently purchased by Uber.

Electric bikes are a small but growing market

While electric bikes, and integrating electric bikes into bikeshare programs, is still a niche mode of transportation, it’s growing across the globe. Global sales should hit $24.4 billion by 2025, according to a Navigant Research study. Since the first such public program launched in Genoa, Italy, in 2009 as a means to help residents navigate the city’s hilly coastal terrain, roughly 150 cities have launched bikeshare programs that utilize electric bikes to some degree, with roughly 50,000 pedal-assist bikes in service.

A Lime electric bike.
Carly Mask

Only 4,000 of those are in service in the United States, but that number is rising fast. Beginning with the nation’s first electric bikeshare program, which launched in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2015, companies such as Jump, Motivate, and Lime have expanded throughout the country. Jump launched the first dockless electric bikeshare in San Francisco in June 2017, and now operates in Washington D.C., as well as Sacramento and Santa Cruz, California, and plans to expand to Austin, Chicago, and other U.S. cities later this year. Bike Chattanooga plans to introduce electric bikes in the coming weeks.

Perhaps the most high profile examples is Motivate, which operates New York City’s Citibike system, and plans to use electric bikes to help alleviate the upcoming shutdown of the L train, which moves 250,000 people a day between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Electric bike corrals, supporting a total of 1,000 pedal assist bikes, will be set up on opposite ends of the Williamsburg Bridge to create a bike shuttle.

Bringing a boost to bikeshare

Electric bikes complement existing bikeshare programs by allowing for longer rides, assisting users who may have disabilities or other physical limitations preventing extended cycling, and providing a car-free way to navigate hilly and steep terrain. They also offer more sustainable trips for commuters. According to Christopher Cherry, a transportation researcher at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, e-bikes are 10 to 20 times more energy-efficient than a car.

Riders have taken to this new form of transit in encouraging ways, according to Rzepecki. Jump statistics show that in San Francisco, electric bikes in the company’s dockless fleet are ridden an average of nine times a day. He’s impressed by that kind of usage, since the system only consists of 400 vehicles spread out around the city.

“These are sub-scale systems, that lack the network effect of other bikeshare systems,” he says.

For Joannah Burkhardt, general manager for Shift in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is rolling out shared electric bikes as part of the city’s existing bikeshare system, she’s interested to see how this new option changes user behavior, and improves the network effect. She expects to see the average ride length of three miles increase, and wonder how it’ll shift routes and membership levels.

“We also expect these bikes to change the way people think about their routes and how they get from one place to another,” she says.

Turning car commuters into cyclists

The key issue for public electric bike programs is charging. Different cities and systems have taken varying approaches: charging stations near transit stops, citywide battery swapping programs, and in some Chinese cities, even setting up kiosks for BYOB (bring your own battery) solutions.

“Whoever can solve that at scale in many cities is going to have a very strong operating advantage,” Rzepecki says.

According to Julie Wood, Vice President of Communications and External Affairs for Motivate, by expanding distance and reach, shared electric bikes can make a big impact. Once users get to the point where they’re comfortable taking three to five mile trips, that’s when these vehicles start really replacing car trips.

“Our CEO likes to say, there are two types of people,” says Wood, “those who haven’t tried an electric bike and those who won’t shut up about them.”