Bike-share programs have been around a few years now, but…this past year I am finally seeing ELECTRIC bikes being tried as an option. I think that’s great! And here’s why…
What’s a “Bike Share”?
Bike-share programs are simply a bike rental scheme, and it has been promoted as a way that crowded cities can ease traffic congestion. Many big-city traffic planners want citizens to embrace public transportation, like trains, buses, and subways. Anyone who has pondered the “last mile” problem will usually grasp how bike-shares can help.
In theory, people can live a certain distance from the expensive-location inner-city businesses, and then ride a train into the city for work (or fun). I was working in New Jersey once, and I spent my weekends riding the train into Manhattan, and then I wandered around the city on foot. I was very pleased to see how well that system worked. Doing that was fine for a tourist who wasn’t in a hurry, but when you are on your way to work? A long casual stroll from the train to your destination is simply not going to get more people onto the train, and out of their cars (which would also reduce the number of parking lots that are tying-up valuable Manhattan real estate).
So…how can we get across that “last mile” from the train station to your workplace? Bike-share programs are helping in some areas, since they cost much less than a taxi. Of course, pedal-only bicycles work best in flat cities…like Manhattan and also Copenhagen. However, once you throw in some hills (in places like San Francisco), it’s a hard-sell to get tourists and work-commuters onto a pedal-bike. BUT!…add an electric motor, and suddenly a whole new world of options will open up.
LimeBike unveiled its own dockless e-bike at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Other companies, like Spin and Motivate, announced e-bike pilots around the same time.
Uber buys “Jump Bike”
Most people these days have already heard of Uber and Lyft. For those who are new to these companies, it is a de-centralized taxi service that uses independent drivers as contractors who drive their own personal vehicles. You access them on your smart-phone, and you can very conveniently pay with Paypal. It removes a tremendous amount of liability and cost-overhead from the parent company, and it allows non-professional people to occasionally earn some money as a part-time driver.
Of course, this business model is not without its risks. Plus, this entirely new industry is under fire from their deep-rooted competitors, professional taxi companies. That being said, Uber and Lyft have navigated the obstacles so far, and are growing fast. This means they have to find some way to invest their profits into a legitimate business expense, or pay taxes on those profits, so…what should they invest in?
Uber just announced that they are buying the bike-share company “Jump Bike”, and this is happening just after Jump Bike has been promoting their new electric rental bikes. This is big news, because a large well-financed company will now be providing and promoting ebike rentals to major cities (and competitors like Lyft are likely to follow). It will allow people in several major cities to rent an ebike, and this is important because…I run into people these days who STILL don’t know ebikes even exist.
Don’t get me wrong, the rental ebikes they will be providing are going to be weak and ugly, and that will turn off quite a few people once they look up the price they’d have to pay to buy one for themselves. However, once they start looking at the ebikes that are for sale, they will also find great-looking models that have more power, and having thousands of people shopping for more powerful ebikes will be a very good thing.
Here’s a story from 2014 about a program in San Francisco. The “pre-pilot” program used two A2B Metro ebikes for testing, but…the client “CityCarshare.Org” was bought by “Getaround”, and there is no word on any near future ebike program.
Even though the ebikes from the article linked above didn’t pan out, I wanted to include them so I could show a pic of the pilot ebike. Notice the “elevated stay” in the frame just above the chain. Using a design like this means that if there is ever a problem with the chain, a bike mechanic does not need to break the chain apart, and then re-attach the links properly. A worn or damaged chain can easily be swapped-in if the frame uses an elevated stay (along with making a rear-wheel swap easier, too), so I hope future bike share companies add this feature.
On the subject of making the life of the mechanic easier, while supplying a product to a public rental service…some bikeshares are starting to use cast 5-spoke plastic wheels (or stamped metal), to eliminate spoke-tensioning maintenance. Also, quite a few are adding no-flat solid foam tires on the rear wheel.
Back in October of 2016, the City of Baltimore launched an electric bike-share program, with 200 ebikes. It was plagued by vandalism and theft, but the Canadian ebike systems supplier (Bewegen Technologies) has learned valuable lessons that they will use to upgrade their program, while expanding it to other cities.
In 11 months of operation, users have taken 40,000 trips and traveled 60,000 miles. Nearly 1,800 people are reported to be active repeat users, so…there certainly is a demand for services like this.
The City of Davis is a University town (near the capital of California, Sacramento), and one of the things they are known for is being very “bicycle friendly”. Here is a recent article about their electric bike-share program, which is scheduled to start in May of 2018. It has been planned by a company called Social Bicycles (SoBi).
Seattle is known to be “green friendly”, but…the significant hills there have made any bicycle-based rental program a little less-than-popular. However, they are trying out an ebike share program supplied by Lime.
The ebikes supplied by Lime have a 250W geared hubmotor in the rear wheel. They use 36V batteries, and when the battery packs are getting low, the rider is given some warning so they can still ride for a while before it must be parked. At that time, a signal is sent to the ebike mechanic, who drives out to swap the battery with a freshly charged one. This is a key feature of the “dockless” systems that are growing in popularity.
The Lime ebikes will have a 15-MPH top speed, which is fine with me (of course, 25-MPH would be better!), but…the 250W power limit is WEAK, and a hubmotor will not climb hills as well as a mid-drive. They are pedelecs, so…there is no hand-throttle, and you must pedal to get any electric-assist. The US power limit is 750W, and a BBS01 at 36V would be a much better performer.
Limebike is expanding rapidly, and I think this is a good development…
No discussion about a bicycle-based transportation system is complete unless…you check-in to see whatever Copenhagen is doing. Once you convert Euro’s to dollars, and gallons to liters, I believe the current price of gasoline there is about $8 per gallon. The local government does this on purpose. It’s not to generate tax income, but to “incentivise” the population to avoid using cars. I think that is a regressive policy, but…Copenhagen also spends significant revenue on bicycle-based systems, so…they really are trying to find out what works.
One standout feature of their commuting infrastructure is the construction of dedicated bike lanes and pathways. In the US, bicyclists are still required to ride on the street, but…our ebikes are only allowed to have power up to 20-MPH (32 km/h). This is on streets where the speed limit for a 3,000-lb cars is 25 to 35-MPH. Since nobody wants bikes to hold up traffic, we are squeezed in-between parked cars and the cars zooming by in the single lane available to them. Very dangerous.
Copenhagen began building dedicated bicycle pathways that are located away from the car streets. When car traffic is slow and congested, the bicycle pathways are close enough that car drivers can see the bicycles gliding along faster than the cars. When a city emphasizes bicycles, it also has the benefit of reducing the parking congestion, since eight bicycles can easily park in the same space as a single car.
The Copenhagen electric bike share program is called “Bycyclen”. And nearby Rotterdam has contracted to also use the same “GoBike” that Copenhagen is using, but…they are ordering over 2,000 of them.
The pic above shows an example of one of their bikeshare electric bikes. One of the common factors of any bikeshare (whether electric or “pedal-only”) is that they all seem to be a step-through frame. That’s actually fine for a mild-performance street cruiser. I also noticed that almost all of these models have a comfortable upright riding posture, instead of being hunched-over like a racer in the Tour de France. A frame like this is sometimes called a “crank forward” style.
Here’s what I like about this version of an ebike as a rental. It uses an internally geared hub (IGH), instead of an external derailleur. The frame utilizes an “elevated stay” so any chain replacement does not require a chain-breaker, or the subsequent “iffy” chain replacement that uses a pin-setter or master-link. It has both a front and rear cargo rack, and they are welded instead of just clamped or bolted-on.
It definitely has a Pedal Assist System (PAS), so you only get power if you are pedaling. I personally like to also have a hand-throttle, but…to be honest?…if I was renting to the public, I’d have only PAS ebikes, too.
Now…here’s what I don’t like. The drive unit is definitely a 250W geared hubmotor, and its mounted on the front wheel. Copenhagen (and manhattan) are fairly flat, so…a small front hub is fine. but throw in some serious hills (San Francisco, Seattle, etc), and you will need a bigger motor, and it should be on the rear wheel. A 750W mid-drive would be even better for the hills, like the Bafang BBS01, but…I don’t know if it could stand up to the daily abuse of tourist renters, who insist on pushing the motor to run in the wrong gear.
As to power, the legal limit in the US is 750W, and…500W in Canada (Kudos to Portland, Oregon, with a 1,000W legal power limit). I am actually OK with public ebike rentals being speed-limited to 20-MPH, but…I also ride on the sidewalk when cars are doing 35-MPH on the streets…which is totally illegal, as I wave to the police when I ride past them…on the sidewalk. This is one area where the police in my town have common sense.
Their battery is located in the rear cargorack, and…I would place it in the downtube for a better weight balance, but that’s just my pinion. Lastly, I’d add a suspension seat-post, but…not an expensive or fragile one, but rather something like the Rinsten would be as good as I would risk.
These bike share models are built like tanks, and are likely made from steel. Sadly, that is something that you “just have to do” when dealing with the public. This is because a small percentage of customers will abuse the equipment, and ruin it for everyone else. Of course, a heavy-duty steel framed bikeshare also means that the electric assist is even more appreciated by riders.
Written by Ron/spinningmagnets, April 2018