A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 24, 2022

How E-Bikes Are Sparking Significantly Greater Bikesharing In New York

Bike sharing has been growing in New York, but the introduction of e-bikes has accelerated usage. 

The pandemic created concerns about public transportation and increased bicycle ridership but sturdier new models with greater range has stimulated use above predictions. Analysts believe this may be a precursor to even higher usage rates in cities across the US. JL 

John Surico reports in Bloomberg CityLab, image Shaye Weaver, TimeOut New York:

New York City's Citi Bike is the largest bikeshare system outside of China. It’s 5,000-strong electric fleet made up 32% of the 28 million rides taken in 2021, even though they only make up 20% of the fleet. They’re used three times more often per day compared to classics. The Covid-19 crisis helped transform the public’s perception of the average e-bike courier, turning riders into frontline workers. Capped at 20 miles per hour, a new e-bike can go 60 miles before needing a charge, twice the previous model.

An electric bike can still draw a crowd in New York City.

At least, it can when it’s one of Citi Bike’s next-generation models, which will begin appearing in docks across the bikesharing network this week. With a sleek silver frame and an LCD screen atop the handlebars, the new bikes are a noticeable upgrade from the standard cobalt-blue two-wheelers that have become so familiar on the city’s streets. As I rode one up Eighth Avenue with Laura Fox, the general manager of Citi Bike at Lyft, we drew stares from the sidewalk and an entourage of curious riders in our wake. 

“Something that's been top of mind for us is this idea that everyone’s a bike person,” Fox said, as we arrived in Central Park. “People are like, ‘Oh yeah, bike lanes and bikes are nice, but not everyone is going to ride.’ And when you look at other countries’ contexts, that’s just not true. So we wanted to bring the principle of simplicity to the bike ride.”

Capped at 20 miles per hour, this new e-bike can go 60 miles before needing a charge, twice the range of the previous model. It’s 20 pounds heavier, too, with hydraulic brakes and a sturdier frame.

New York is the third U.S. city to get the model, which premiered under the Lyft banner in San Francisco in June 2021 and later with Chicago’s Divvy system. But Citi Bike — the largest bikeshare system outside of China — will be its biggest proving ground. In New York City, bikes can be used 10 to 15 times per day, says Fox. (In 2018, Lyft acquired Motivate, which owned Citi Bike.)

According to Lyft’s 2022 Multimodal Report, Citi Bike’s 5,000-strong electric fleet made up 32% of the nearly 28 million rides taken in 2021, even though they only make up 20% of the fleet. On average, they’re used three times more often per day compared to classics.

The surge of Citi Bike’s battery-powered rides mirrors a larger trend unfolding on the streets of New York City. Practically everywhere you look, people are riding electric two-wheelers — delivery workers bearing take-out orders, sightseers on Citi Bikes, families on e-cargo bikes, or just individuals on their own models. Three electric bike dealerships have opened within a few blocks from my apartment recently. There is little data on e-bike usage itself, but the nearly 7 million rides on Citi Bike last year, compared to 2.7 million in 2020, is probably a good indication of how electrification has boosted the overall popularity of bicycles in the city.

It’s been a remarkable transformation for a city where all e-bikes were technically illegal until 2018. E-bikes, whether you ride them or not, stand to play an outsized role in shaping the city’s transportation picture for years to come. They could help tame the city’s resurgent traffic and reduce the sector’s stubbornly large carbon footprint by replacing shorter trips now taken in private cars, cabs or ride-hailing vehicles. And their rapid uptake could place greater pressure on planners to adjust city streets accordingly. But thorny issues around costs, infrastructure, equity and safety persist.

Now, as the pandemic bike boom enters its third year, it’s worth asking: How far can e-bikes go from here?

The Cost Factor

Pamela Martinez, who recently immigrated to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic, always considered e-bikes too expensive. New ones average $1,500 or more; cheaper models exist, but Martinez didn’t trust their durability. She had a pedal-only bike, but the hills of her Hunts Point neighborhood were intimidating. Especially with two kids in tow.

“Here, you have to have a really good body to pedal,” she said. “And with the kids at school, sometimes I had to go back and forth from work, because a kid is sick or they leave for lunch.”

That was before she obtained a RadWagon, an electric cargo bike popular with families because of its kid-hailing potential. It lists for about $2,000, but Martinez only paid half that, thanks to the Equitable Commute Project, an initiative led by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives that links residents living in neighborhoods known for long commutes to subsidized electric mobility options. She learned about the program through her workplace and paid her share of the purchase price with the help of a loan by SpringBank, the CDFI that acts as a financial partner. “It was the easiest process of my life,” she said.

Like many e-bike owners I’ve spoken with, Martinez is in love with hers; after we spoke, she emailed me photos of her orange bike, with her kids in the back, smiling. “I can go to the supermarket with a six-year old and a baby, and I don’t feel it,” she told me. She feels more confident zipping around cars, she said, since she can keep up — a facet particularly important to female riders, who encounter an outsized risk of abuse and harassment from drivers. Soon, their collection may expand. “I always say to my husband, ‘I'm going to take it’ and he’ll say ‘No, I need it,’” Martinez said. “So we need another one.”

Melinda Hanson, who runs Electric Avenue, a micromobility consulting firm that led the Equitable Commute Project’s implementation, said financing is key to helping expand e-bike ownership. “They end up being a really good transportation option, but it can often be easier for someone with poor or no credit to get a loan for a car than it is for them to get a small-dollar loan,” she says. 

The initiative looked to Europe for inspiration: In France, both the Greater Paris region and the city itself offer e-bike incentives; German companies allow employees to pay off a subsidized cost through small hits on their paycheck. (The private sector is starting to do the same in the U.S..)  “We found that it was a combination of government and workplace incentives that really worked,” Hanson said.

The E-Bike Act, which would offer a 30 percent tax credit over five years (or up to $900) and treat cycling as a commuter benefit, is the closest thing that exists in the U.S.. But its fate is tied to that of the Build Back Better Act, which remains stalled in Congress; it is unclear if the bill will be included in the latest push for that legislation.

Absent federal help, states like California and Vermont have stepped in with rebate programs. A bill recently introduced in New York State would offer a 50% rebate, totaling up to $1,500. (The Equitable Commute Project is one of the finalists for a grant from NYSERDA, the state’s environmental economic development arm, which would allow it to expand to 5,000 riders.) Many U.S. cities also have incentive programs: Austin offers a $300 rebate on purchases, and Denver rolled out a $400 rebate, and up to $1,200 for low-income residents.

Could New York City do something similar? “Making green transportation options more affordable for New Yorkers is critical to fighting climate change and ensuring equitable access to mobility,” said Vin Barone, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT). “We look forward to learning more about the details of this proposal [from the state].”

The Plug-In Problem

No one knows the challenges facing e-bikes in New York City better than its deliveristas, the mode’s early adopters and power users. 

The Covid-19 crisis helped transform the public’s perception of the average e-bike courier, turning riders into frontline workers and shining a light on issues like crime and working conditions. They face some different obstacles than commuting or recreational e-bike owners — such as finding a place to plug in, since delivery workers put in long hours on their bikes. One emerging alternative is the Los Deliveristas Unidos HUB, a brick-and-mortar service point for recharging and bike repairs that’s looking to open in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this June, with help from Senator Chuck Schumer. The city is installing curbside charging sites for car-sized electric vehicles, but their tiny micromobility siblings haven’t received the same treatment. “Electric cars, we know how the infrastructure works, right?” Hernández said. “But for the e-bike and micromobility conversation, we haven’t even started.”


Citi Bike is in a similar charging quandary: In recent months, the bikeshare operator has explored the idea of making docks charging sites, so there’s less need for trucks to haul bikes away to be charged and redistributed. The next-gen model debuting this week is built to be able to be juiced-up on the go, and the idea is being tested in Chicago. Talks continue with ConEd, the city’s biggest utility supplier, and the DOT.  “We need to work through the specifics of that, because it’s pretty expensive,” said Citi Bike’s Fox.


The Bike Lane Barrier 
A bigger infrastructural hurdle to further growth for e-bikes is more basic: “It’s the age-old problem of safe places to ride and park,” said Jon Orcutt, a former DOT official and director of advocacy at the nonprofit group Bike New York
During the eight-year tenure of former Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city added around 150 miles of on-street protected bike lanes, mostly using parked cars as traffic barriers. His administration also pushed out initiatives like “bike boulevards” that feature traffic-calming measures and a car-turned-bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge at the end of his term. 
But New York’s progress falls far behind that of world capitals like Paris, which have been expanding bike infrastructure more aggressively, especially during the pandemic. Bike advocates give New York City’s effort mixed reviews. “‘Protected’ bike lanes put directly into curb lanes have not worked well in most places — cars and trucks just park in them,” said Orcutt. “Parking-protected bike lanes work OK. They could use some design changes at intersections and more physical infrastructure along no-standing areas. In some places at some times of day, they’ve become hectically overcrowded.” 
Last month, Mayor Eric Adams announced the NYC Streets Plan, which will commit $904 million over five years to install 250 miles of protected bike lanes by the end of 2026. Adams has also promised to fortify 20 miles of protected bike lanes with concrete barriers by 2023. 
The investment comes at a fragile time for the city’s streets. After Vision Zero policies brought traffic-related deaths to record lows in the 2010s, numbers began to tick up: 2019 was a historically deadly year for cyclists in New York. So far, 2022 is on track to be one of the most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists alike in the Vision Zero era: Traffic fatalities were up 44% in the first three months of the year. 

Outside of being able to cycle safely, Melinda Hanson said another crucial piece for e-bikes is parking and storage. E-bike owners are likely to balk at leaving their expensive machines U-locked to open bike racks on the street. The city has an ongoing curbside pilot with the bike parking startup Oonee, whose enclosed pods are popular with e-bike owners. But Hanson thinks the city should do more.

“A limitation in New York, in particular, for people who live in walk-ups is the lack of storage,” said Hanson. “For a long time we've had parking minimums with new high-rise towers for cars. Why don’t we have that for bikes more generally? That’s a critical role the city could play.”

A Hot E-Bike Summer?

In September 2021, Citi Bike set several ridership records, and the system expects to top those figures in 2022 as the temperatures warm. The company is also adding a slew of docks, pushing further into Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx as part of its “Phase 3” expansion. Further growth into transit-desert communities would require city subsidies — something the new mayor has floated before.

The newest e-bikes stand to be in high demand. At first, the updated model will be exclusively available to annual members and reduced-fare riders. In April, elected officials called on the city’s DOT to raise the 20% cap on e-bikes, arguing that a bigger share of the popular battery-assisted rides will reduce traffic and emissions. But opinions are mixed: Some advocates have said the cap is important for promoting an equitable system. Without it, e-bikes, which cost more per minute to rent, could overtake the cheaper pedal bikes. 

Regardless of how many hit the streets in the coming months, the new model seems destined to be the talk of the town. As we glided down Ninth Avenue, Fox produced a two-word response to inquisitive onlookers who asked: “Coming soon!”


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