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Combining E-Bikes And Bikeshares Is A Winning Transit Solution For The Climate, Cities, and Consumers

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  • Jan 19, 2018

Two increasingly popular phenomena – E-bikes and bikeshare systems – are combining to provide cities with new solutions to help alleviate transportation and pollution woesHundreds of millions of E-bikes and millions of bikeshare bicycles are now pedaling out across the globe, helping to reduce traffic jams and consumer costs.

Even months ago, E-bikes (bikes with electric assist) and bikeshare systems may have been foreign concepts, but now many will be familiar with these new technologies, given how fast they are spreading across the world’s crowded cities.

And, with transportation now the fastest growing source of global carbon dioxide emissions, support for the proliferation of accessible, low-carbon mobility options like E-bikes and bikeshare systems are crucial to international climate change action.

E-bike, Bikeshare Systems Rolling Out Worldwide

E-bikes are mounted with a small, rechargeable battery that helps riders travel faster and further, with speeds up to 28 miles per hour, going up to 60 miles per charge. Some bikes are configured to boost the rider’s pedaling power, while others use a throttle and require no pedaling, much like a scooter. E-bikes allow riders to cruise up steep hills as if they were flat, easily carry groceries or kids, and commute to work without breaking a sweat.

Given their attractiveness, E-bike use is soaring around the world. Navigant Research reports 35 million E-bikes were sold worldwide in 2017. E-bikes are especially popular in Asia with more than 200 million filling the streets in China, and in Europe with more than 500,000 bikes sold in Germany alone in 2015. Sales are rising in the United States, as bike models evolve from a specialty commuting or recreation device to a standard form that is accessible to all bike consumers.

The other rising trend is bikeshare systems, which allow users to rent bikes using a self-service kiosk, or increasingly on phone-based apps. “Smart bike” technology means bikes can be taken from one location and left in another, providing a convenient, cheap transit option for people, especially in dense cities. Bikeshare systems can be dock-based, where bikes are found and returned to stations where bikes are locked, or can be dockless, where the phone app informs the customer of the whereabouts of a bike and the bike can be left anywhere after use.

An estimated 1 million bikeshare bicycles were on the road worldwide at the end of 2015, with China home to three-quarters of that total – and this is even before the difficult-to-track dockless-bikshare trend hit the streets in 2017. The trend is also growing in the U.S. with more than 28 million trips taken in 2016 and 88 million trips taken since 2010.

Bikeshare systems are becoming a popular choice in cities because they offer freedom and speed that outcompete many other forms of transit, especially in increasingly congested cities. New York City’s Citi Bike, run by Motivate, is one of the most recognized. A recent study showed that over 50% of peak hour taxi trips would be faster by Citi Bikes, and congestion is making taxis ever slower. Bikeshare systems also connect riders with public transit, extending travel options – the U.S. Department of Transportation reports 86% of bikeshare stations are within one block of public transportation.

New York City peak hour taxi trips compared to bike trips


Combining E-bikes With Bikeshare System Expands Transportation Benefits 

Integrating E-bikes into bikeshare systems provides even greater accessibility, allows greater distances to be traveled, can help make biking more accessible to those that may be otherwise less fit to ride, and can help riders overcome hills in some the most iconic cities around the world, including San Francisco.

Unsurprisingly, Copenhagen, among the world’s bike culture leaders, introduced Bicyklen, one of the first full-scale E-bike sharing systems, in 2013. Madrid introduced BiciMAD in June 2014, and now many cities throughout Europe are following the trend, including hilly cities like Lisbon. E-bike sharing systems are also multiplying in China, with Xiangqi introduced to the streets of Shanghai in 2015 and Zeebike in 2016 focusing on serving university campuses.

This trend is now hitting the U.S. The first system, Zyp, was launched in Birmingham in 2015, another system launched in Baltimore in 2016, and Social Bicycle introduced a dockless E-bike system to Washington D.C. in 2017. 120 bright red JUMP bikes are currently cruising the streets of D.C., with 400 total bikes planned by February. Motivate has announced their expansion of the San Francisco Bay Area Ford GoBike program will include E-bikes in 2018, which may influence operations in the numerous other cities Motivate operates in across the U.S.

According to JUMP, their E-bikes have averaged more than 3.5 trips per bike per day and about 3.3 miles per trip since the system launched in September 2017. This is about triple the use and distance compared with the other five dockless bikeshare companies operating in D.C., which have all averaged around one trip per bike per day and one mile per trip. That amounts to E-bikes carrying riders 10 times more miles per day in D.C. than standard bikes, and shows the exponential increase possible in travel by bikes as an alternative to cars. JUMP has also been collecting data showing that their E-bikes travel faster than cars for many trips in the city during rush hour, similar to evidence from New York City.

Making Urban Alchemy Work In Cities

Officials should pave the way for E-bike bikeshare as a transportation solution for their cities, using four strategies to build strong public-private bikeshare partnerships:

  1. Create clear E-bike legislation: Many U.S. states now have good E-bike regulations, but cities need to translate these regulations into rules making it easy and safe for E-bikes to operate on roads, including rules for permitted E-bike classes and speed limits. People for Bikes provides guidance for best practice regulations.
  2. Create safe bicycle infrastructure: Some cities are beginning to complain that their bike infrastructure is becoming oversaturated, and that introducing E-bikes will create problems – but this is a good problem. The solution is giving bikes, not cars, more share of the road and public space rather than limiting bike use because bikes are a far more efficient use of road space! The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s Bikeshare Planning Guide provides cities with helpful tools, including protected bike lanes and bike parking for use by both bikeshare and privately owned bikes.
  3. Create a clear electric charging permit process: With the growing trend of both electric vehicles and E-bikes, cities need to make it easy for companies to invest in charging stations by creating clear permitting processes for both public and private property. Seattle has established a best practice EV charging permit process for residential, private, and public rights of way that other cities can follow.
  4. Ensure data is used for better planning: With the onslaught of app-based mobility modes for cars and bikes, more data are becoming available on the travel patterns of people. Cities should ensure that all companies operating on their streets make data publicly available so that it can be used for better transit planning for the future.

Car companies have the world excited by the coming of autonomous cars, but self-driving cars will not create true driver autonomy if they sit in traffic. After all, an autonomous or electric vehicle traffic jam is still a traffic jam. E-bikes on the other hand provide the freedom to go where you want, when you want, without sitting in traffic – true autonomy that even the most advanced technology vehicles of the future cannot promise.

E-bikes and bikeshare alone are already attractive transit option for cities. Putting them together is urban alchemy.  It is time for cities to charge ahead.

By Heather Thompson

Heather (@htstrategy) is an independent environmental strategy and design consultant.

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