Bike-sharing (3/3): The great electric leap forward
Published 17 April 2018 by Cherise Fong
The final part of our investigation into bike-sharing focuses on the emergence of a newer model for urban mobility: electric bicycles. But why has it taken so long?
Over the past decade, bike-sharing programs have been developing exponentially worldwide. The Bike-sharing World Map lists more than 18 million public-use bicycles in over 1,500 programs. Around 130 of these programs offer pedal-assist bicycles, or pedelecs, as part or all of their fleet. Currently, there are some 40,000 shared pedelecs in the world, with half of them in China.
History of bike-sharing, by ItoWorld (2017):
What a great way to visualize #bikesharing growth over the ten years by the work of @Bikesharingmap. Great animation by @itoworld pic.twitter.com/QQUPLfNJlo
— The Bike-sharing Map (@BikesharingMap) November 11, 2017
But it was only in recent years that electric motors began to infiltrate bike-sharing in big cities.
The first electrified fleet appeared in 2009, when Bicincittà introduced 60 pedelecs to its Mobike program in Genova, Italy. Up until 2014, most electric fleets were deployed only in small Italian and Swiss communes situated in the mountains. Russell Meddin, curator of the Bike-sharing World Map, explains: “In Switzerland, a program run by the national bus company introduced pedelecs to get people from one small community to another, and thus reduced the number of bus stops in the villages. It was the same thing in mountainous Italy, people used the electric bikes to go from commune to commune, especially on market days.” These programs persist to this day.
In June 2014, Madrid was the first world capital to launch an all-electric bike-sharing program, with a fleet of 1,580 Booster Bikes at 120 Bicimad stations. In the United States, Bewegen won the first contract in October 2015 to deploy 400 pedelecs at 40 solar-powered Zyp stations in Birmingham, Alabama. One month later, the city of Jincheng in China’s Shanxi province inaugurated the largest electric fleet in the world with 3,000 pedelecs at 225 stations.
Usuarios disfrutando el #PaseoNocturno ? pic.twitter.com/j82HbcH0jC
— ECOBICI CDMX (@ecobici) March 25, 2018
Since then, pedelec-sharing programs have proliferated. In Japan, telecommunications giant Docomo electrified its fleets from Tohoku to Okinawa between May and October 2017. In Paris, the pioneer of bike-sharing since 2007, Smovengo, the heir to operator JCDecaux, inaugurated Vélib 2 (despite a few hiccups in the transition process) with a 30% electric fleet on January 1, 2018. In February, the Mexican program Ecobici, which already operates over 6,000 bikes for 100,000 users, added 340 pedelecs and 28 multimedia stations within 35km2 of Mexico City (successfully).
All urban bike-sharing programs understand that two key factors of a successful implementation are accessibility and a safe cycling infrastructure. In Lisbon, “the city of seven hills”, the network of bike paths will be extended by 200km by the end of 2020 to a total of 380km, thanks to the concerted efforts of the city, local transportation company Emel and activist cycling collectives such as Mubi and Lisboa Horizontal. As a result, more than 65% of the Portuguese capital will soon be easily accessible to anyone via Gira pedelecs.
Lisbon’s cyclist topography, by Lisboa Horizontal (2015):
If the ultimate goal of bike-sharing is to integrate cycling more inclusively into the urban transportation network, why has it taken so long to roll out electric bicycles, especially in all those hilly cities?
“Finances have changed,” says Russell Meddin. “Today, the amount of money needed to deploy a fleet of pedelecs is close to that of standard bicycles, in the range of just $200 to $400 more for a comparable bike. So the bike-sharing operator can easily create more ridership and generate more income.”
Also, he adds, “within the last 7-8 years, the number of pedelecs sold for personal use has skyrocketed!” Are people finally discovering the empowered mobility of electrified cycling? Meanwhile in Sweden, electric bicycles are 25% subsidized by the government through 2020.
Battle of the batteries
But even if costs have dropped, bike-sharing programs trying to catch up with the electric trend are facing logistical challenges, beginning with battery charging. For docked systems, the problem is how to connect the fleet to the city’s electrical grid. Other programs have chosen to entrust each user with the responsibility of charging their own portable battery (if only to avoid unauthorized DIY solutions like ShareRoller, a homemade kit to electrify New York’s public Citi Bikes in 2014).
This strategy has created hybrid services, where users can either take out a bike and use it as a standard bicycle or convert it into a pedelec by inserting their portable battery. The bike connects to a mobile application that displays the battery charge level and other information about the bike and its usage. This is the case with Velitul in Laval, soon JCDecaux’s e-VLS in Luxembourg and Stockholm, CycleHop’s (dockless) HOPR in North America, etc.
HOPR and its portable battery, by CycleHop (2018):
In all these systems, users must recharge their battery via a standard outlet at home or at the office, then bring it with them to the bike. The main inconvenience is that the battery, which on average allows an autonomy of 6-10km at a maximum speed of 25km/h, weighs anywhere from 500g to 1kg.
In Hangzhou, the Chinese city that alone accounts for almost one million shared bicycles, a new system launched in January 2018 introduced 1,000 pedelecs in the district of Binjiang that run on a large removable battery. The difference is that these batteries are stored and charged in a separate solar-powered vending machine at each station. So users can still choose between a standard or electric bike, but without the responsibility of carrying and maintaining the battery.
In Milan, the newly launched Bitride electric bike-sharing program incorporates the innovative Italian technology of Zehus, which augments the bike with pedal-assist power, potentially without ever having to recharge the battery. The trick lies in the rear hub, which encapsulates both the battery and the motor, in order to store electricity generated as the rider pedals… and also judges when she might need a little boost. The question is whether these shared bicycles will be robust enough to withstand repeated public usage over the long term. Bitride is still in pilot phase, but certainly one to watch.
Bike+ technology by Zehus:
In the land of cars and liability
Unlike Europe, where bicycles have always been considered as a practical means of transportation, or Asia, where population density has long contributed to the popularity of bicycles, pedelecs and other scooters, the United States—second emitter of fossil fuel CO2 in the world after China—still has a long way to go when it comes to changing attitudes around bicycles.
While accessibility and safe urban infrastructure remain fundamental criteria for widespread cycling anywhere, the U.S. presents the added challenges of cycling in the streets perceived as a dangerous sport (see “helmet-shaming”), and especially the general lack of reliable public transportation, which only reinforces the culture of personal cars as symbols of independence and middle-class lifestyle.
For Americans who already consider themselves cyclists, the leap of faith to replace their everyday drives with electric bicycle rides encounters little resistance. The problem is with everyone else. Unsurprisingly, marketing for new e-bikes emphasizes the image of effortless freedom gained by these agile vehicles in an environment otherwise oppressed by automobile traffic jams.
Liberation by e-bike according to GenZe (2017):
Launched as Bay Area BikeShare in 2013 by the operator Motivate, Ford GoBike deployed 250 pedelecs in San Francisco in April 2018, a pilot that should lead to an increasingly electrified fleet with each passing year. Their pedelec partner is the quasi-activist company GenZe (Generation Zero Emissions), a digital native of Silicon Valley whose top-grade models feature 345W motors for a maximum speed of 29km/h.
However, most would argue that the future of bike-sharing is free-floating. Some more recent programs also use geofencing to define parking zones within the city. Because, despite the media hysteria over Chinese bicycle graveyards and Parisian vandalism, dockless bikes are more convenient for responsible users, cost taxpayers a lot less, and are always preferable to automobile graveyards.
Scooters for drivers
LimeBike and Spin, the leaders of dockless bike-sharing in North American cities and campuses, both added electric scooters to their fleets in early 2018 (even as their marketing campaigns diverge).
Spin says pick up and drop off a bike “anywhere” (2017):
LimeBike lays out the rules on how to park responsibly (2018):
Bird focuses exclusively on dockless electric scooters. This start-up founded by a former executive of Uber and Lyft is always recruiting individuals to round up scooters and recharge their batteries at night before redistributing them in the morning. Just like those of LimeBike and Spin, these adult scooters (made in China) can reach a maximum speed of 23km/h and cost 1$ to ride + 15 cents per minute. Bird also offers a free helmet to each user, no doubt also to comply with local traffic safety laws. However, the supreme irony of all these public-use electric scooters in the U.S. is that you need a driver’s licence to ride one!
The scooter start-up, which raised $100 million earlier this year, already has its share of problems dealing with public grievances and certain city regulations. As scooters are potentially even more “disposable” than free-floating bikes, Bird has responded with a written pledge to strictly monitor, maintain and limit its fleet, as well as to remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments for better bike lanes for all. And Bird invites Ofo, Mobike, LimeBike and Jump to do the same.
Also early this year, Jump Bikes launched the first fleet of dockless pedelecs in the U.S. Jump emerged from the momentum of Social Bicycles, their standard dockless bike-sharing system born in Brooklyn in 2010 and commercialized since 2013 following a Kickstarter campaign. In an increasingly competitive environment, these bright red e-bikes are sturdier than their colleagues (and much safer than scooters), with several speeds to reach up to 30km/h and an attractive design that effectively expresses the idea of an electrified urban vehicle.
Jump bikes are equipped with a built-in U-lock that encourages users to lock them to a fixed public structure, preferably a bike rack. They are accessible from $2 for 30mn. It’s a vision that seeks to integrate the urban fabric, work with city governments and collaborate with local communities, all the while disrupting individual mobility around the city… And in case there was still any doubt, Jump has just been acquired by Uber.
The great leap forward in urban mobility, with all its teething and growing pains, just may be a time-lapse happening right before our eyes.
View the availability of public bicycles worldwide in real-time on the Bike Share Map or the open data website Citybikes