Riding an electric bicycle is a bit like becoming the Hulk. When I hopped on a pedelec bike owned by Jump Bikes (”pedelec” short for “pedal electric cycle,” an e-bike with a small motor that assists pedaling but doesn’t do all the work) for a ride around San Francisco, I felt just a touch stronger. Like someone had sprinkled me with a few gamma rays.
The e-bike was better than a regular bike, obvi. But it might be better than the bus, too. And better than another awkward conversation with an Uber driver. At $2 for 30 minutes, it might be cheaper, faster, and easier, too. That’s because Jump runs a dockless bike-share service, the kind that has been hoovering venture capital like a Dyson run amok.
The company isn’t alone. There’s been an explosion of American dockless, electric bike-sharing systems, which started in Europe and Asia and have now reached American shores. Eight-year-old Jump is live in San Francisco and Washington, DC. Limebike has zippy electrified bikes in Seattle, parts of the Bay Area, and soon, San Diego. Spin, less than one year old, offers e-bikes in Miami and on two university campuses. Nere, a company currently operating under the name Smide in Switzerland, plans to enter the American market in at the end of the year.
Bike-sharing is not new, but unlike your standard docked system—like New York’s Citi Bike, which greeted its 50 millionth ride last year—you can drop off an electric, dockless bike anywhere. (Some, like Jump’s, lock to racks; others, like Nere’s, lock in place wherever you want.) When you want a ride, the app will give you the location and charge level of nearby bikes.
E-bikes are faster and less cumbersome than your average, pokey bike-share steed. They can conquer all manner of terrain—even San Francisco hills—no sweat required. And they won’t tire out riders, no matter their age or fitness level. These are the bikes could get the old and office-bound into cycling.
Which is why dockless, electric bike-sharing should make everyone in the transportation business a bit nervous. Say hello to the potential slayer of Uber, Lyft, or Car2Go—any car-based service meant for short trips in the city. “We substitute for public transit, taxi, and ridesharing,” says Nere CEO Kirt McMaster.
The data backs up the bravado. “Research in other parts of the world has suggested for a long time that electric bikes can be very disruptive to other travel modes because of their ease of use, additional power, and the ability to go from point A to point B without hitting as much congestion or having to take multiple transit transfers,” says Susan Shaheen, a UC Berkeley civil engineer who studies mobility innovation. “How all of these things converge? Do they ultimately complement one another, or do they compete with other modes? It’s hard to know with the ecosystem of shared modes and bike-sharing evolving so quickly.”
While researchers crunch the data, those building the bikes say their competitive edge will come down to trip length, cost, and your favorite city bugbear, traffic.
In 2016, the average Uber trip in San Francisco was around 5 miles; in Boston, about 4.5; Chicago, around 5.5. E-bike-share has its eyes on the shorter trips—journeys that are too far to walk, but stay within the urban core. Jump Bikes says its average ride in DC and San Francisco is around 3 miles. In Zurich, where Nere has operated for 18 months, most rides are between two and six miles. Sure, those will cost you more than your standard bike-sharing trip, about 25 cents a minute for Nere and $2 for the first 30 minutes and 7 cents after that for Jump. But it’s still competitive with an Uber ride, or maybe even the bus.
It might be faster, too. In the spring of 2017, traffic on San Francisco’s arterial roads averaged at 12.2 mph during the evening rush hour. Jump’s bikes can hit 20 mph, cutting to the front of red light lines and zooming by traffic in ways even motorized scooters sometimes can’t. (Check your local lane-splitting laws.)
So all hail e-bikes, the ride-hail killer, yeah? Not so fast. Uber has a talent for peering around corners to see competitors. When Lyft came on the scene, Uber launched its budget UberX service. Now, it has found a way to go after public transit. So don’t think it has missed e-bike-share. In January, the ride-hail company announced a pilot program with Jump in San Francisco. Users can sign up to use the bikes from within the Uber app.
“We think there are times when an e-bike is going to be cost or time competitive with Uber, and that’s one of the reasons we want to partner with it,” says Andrew Salzberg, who heads up transportation and mobility policy at Uber. If you can’t beat ’em, co-opt their tech.
(Lyft, for its part, announced a non-electric bike-sharing partnership with Baltimore Bike Share last week, which will see five docked bike-share systems transformed into Lyft-branded “transportation hubs”, with designated spots for ride-hail pick-ups and drop-offs. It’s not e-bike-share.)
Just three tiny things stand in the way of worldwide e-bike-share domination. One is charging infrastructure. In Seattle, LimeBike has trained an operations team of 40 people to travel around the city, swapping batteries when they get low. Jump Bikes wants to offer San Francisco businesses, offices, and even private homes the opportunity to host a bike-sharing charging center, in exchange for the perk of having near-constant access to a nearby bike. The company will offer riders incentives to drop their bikes off at charging stations, as it does today at two charging warehouses in the Soma and Bayview neighborhoods. If the companies can’t crack this—if they can’t keep their bikes reliably charged—say goodbye. Because the only thing that sucks more than doing your own pedaling is doing your own pedaling with an empty battery pack weighing you down.
The second is justifying the capital expenditures associated with e-bikes—the higher cost of producing these things versus their power-free cousins. (So 19th century!) To do this, the e-bike people have to get people riding. A lot of people. They are bullish. “We think, at scale, the difference between a pedal bike and electric bike is about $200 to $300,” says Ryan Rzepecki, the company’s founder. “At that price it’s really a no-brainer,” he says. Today, Jump’s 250 bikes in San Francisco are each being used about four times a day.
The last is cycling infrastructure. Cities hoping to launch bike-share have been faced with a chicken and egg problem: Should they build bike lanes to accommodate scores of cyclists who don’t actually exist yet? Or do they wait until scores of very real cyclists start demanding their own places on the street—or until someone gets hurt? On this point, the bike-sharing people seem optimistic. “We personally believe we’re going to see much better bicycle infrastructure come into play as we see more adoption in the US,” says Nere’s McMaster.
Shaheen, the transportation specialist, says cities that have gone ahead and launched bike-share programs often see infrastructure and riders grow together. “As the system scales there’s more of a consciousness or awareness in the community that more supporting bike infrastructure is needed,” she says. And if you’re going to ride a bike—well, it might as well be electric.
© 2018 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
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