Not just Mobility: How E-bike Share Can Spark a Design Revolution

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

by: Lisa Nisensen, New Mobility Technical Advisor, with Jean Crowther, AICP, New Mobility Group Lead, Alta Planning + Design

Recently, the ride hailing company Uber gave the bike share world a jolt by acquiring the electric bike (e-bike) share company JUMP. Another shared mobility provider, LimeBike added both e-bike and electric scooter (e-scooter) share options to its dockless bike share service to compete with the growing number of dockless bike share competitors.

With all of the innovation occurring within the two-wheeled space, shared e-bikes and pedal-assist bikes have the greatest potential to transform mobility in urban and suburban locations alike. However, as part of the flood of dockless bike share innovation, electric models are included in articles scolding disorder on sidewalks and in bike lanes. One recent headline declared “Cities Need to Step Up.” But how?

Let’s break down the growing interest and potential of e-bikes and e-bike share, and the challenges and opportunities of integrating e-bike share into mobility programs and design.

The Backdrop: Why are E-bike Making News?

E-bikes are not a new invention. However, the dramatic rise in their popularity and increase in ways to access e-bikes is new. The e-bike market in the US grew by 25% in 2017 (over 2016), according to industry tracker eCycle Electric. New leasing models such as Riide have expanded access to mass markets, recognizing the high purchase price for owning an e-bike. Both dock-based and dockless bike share providers are beginning to offer mixed fleets of manual and electric models. Birmingham’s Zyp bike share became the first e-bikeshare system in the US to add electric models. Currently, about 25% of its fleet is electric — and growing steadily.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

How to Approach E-Bikeshare

One of the main lessons from the rapid growth in dockless bike share that applies to e-bike share is that cities and campuses must take an active role. As cities expand infrastructure like bike lanes and sidewalks, e-bikes raise questions on where each mode can travel. The breadth and pace of change doesn’t just require stepping up — but also stepping ahead.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

E-bikes and e-bike share are not isolated. They fit into the larger mobility ecosystem linking travelers to destinations. While many will use e-bikes for an entire trip, others will link to other shared modes, such as transit. However, technology only facilitates travel and transfers among modes if the physical and digital infrastructure work in concert with each other. For e-bike share, this requires bikeways, bike parking, charging and access to the smartphone app.

E-bike Share Advantages and Disadvantages

It’s important to understand the unique advantages and challenges with e-bike share. The advantages lie in extended range, both in distance and topography, expanded user base, and the benefits of a sweat-free (or at least less-sweaty) ride. From a planning perspective, e-bike share can be particularly valuable in suburban areas for first/last mile access to commuter transit or for retrofitting a corridor for multi-mobility.

The main disadvantage is power supply, which requires battery swapping, plug-in, or solar charging. E-bike share is unique among bike share systems in that strategies for both parking and rebalancing have to account for charging needs. Employers will likely explore e-bike share as part of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs, which may require working with building managers to find locations suitable for parking and electric charging.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation
Go to the profile of Alta Planning + Design
Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

E-bike share operators are getting creative to overcome common problems. Their teams use technology to track and predict remaining battery life of any given bike and manually swapping batteries has been reduced to a matter of minutes. Recent news suggests companies are turning to the users for more direct help. CycleHop enlists users to charge the batteries, while JC Decaux has announced a BYOB (Bring-Your-Own-Battery) strategy. Among these varied approaches, it remains to be seen which will stand the test of consumer buy-in and a sustainable business model.

The Long Game: Stepping Up Requires Thinking Ahead

Forecasting: E-bike share’s initial popularity points to a future of increased bicycling, but the challenge is figuring out how e-bike share fits into mobility systems experiencing constant innovation and change. The planning sweet spot is meeting today’s needs while anticipating the future — and the steps along the way.

Given the uncertainties of fast-paced transportation technology, it’s helpful to convene stakeholders to consider e-bike share’s potential impacts within the overall mobility system, both positive and negative. In addition to traditional bicycle and transit advocates, invite the business community (to forecast e-commerce and infrastructure needs), regional employers and housing advocates studying the relationship of housing and transportation costs. Include bike share operators and smart city companies as well to establish data collection, analysis, performance metrics, and possible pivots within future scenarios. From the beginning, operators, campus manager and cities will need to define expectations for operations, maintenance, and regulation.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

Scenarios can also address how other technologies and change drivers might come into play with e-bikes and e-bike share. For example, as vehicle fleets transition to electric models, cities, campus planners, and real estate developers will need to develop master electric charging policies and plans. Good planning will include charging access for e-bikes and will plan for e-bikes’ role in travel and deliveries.

Bike Master Planning 2.0: Bike sharing, in all forms, will continue to expand interest in biking for recreation, short trips, commuting and deliveries. In addition, each variation brings its own planning nuances. E-bikes will benefit from distributed charging options. Cargo bikes will need larger parking and loading zones. Master bicycle planning is emerging as a critical element for public space planning and development site plans.

Street and Sidewalk Demand Management: The growing demand for urban living, walkable neighborhoods, and shared-use mobility has increased competition for curb and sidewalk space. E-bike share only adds to the pressure cities face in allocating space for landscaping, street furniture, utilities, outdoor cafes, signage and now, access to electric smart mobility. This shift is an opportunity to rethink how we allocate, price, and manage sidewalk space in a way that aligns policies with local goals and priority outcomes.

First/Last Mile: Transit agencies are taking a closer look at boosting ridership by enhancing access for those who live and work within a mile of transit. E-bikes and e-bike share have the potential to increase the range for transit and commuter rail, as well as the ease for swapping out a car commute with an e-bike. In addition to bike share, car share companies and transit agencies are adding electric cars. First/Last Mile planning can co-locate facilities for all electric modes.

The Future of Bikeways and Trails: With new modes and shared fleets playing a role in transit access, commuting, and other daily trips, the principles behind Complete Streets and trail design are evolving. Perhaps the most urgent question is how to handle the low-speed mix of bicycles, e-bikes, cargo bikes, scooters, one-wheels and future low-speed modes like driverless shuttles on streets, trails and bikeways. The growing mode mix will likely yield new design and management strategies depending on the context, mobility goals and other benefits sought.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

For example, regions and states are seeking to expand trails beyond tourism and recreation to economic development and commuting uses. The CV Link in California, pictured above, is a good example of a mixed-motorized trail that supports walking, biking, e-bikes, and neighborhood electric vehicles.

Getting Started Now

Cities and towns can plan for the future now. There are near-term ways to get started that provide cities with an opportunity to test proactive policies and design concepts in real time and see what happens.

E-bike share pilots: With trending technology, most localities begin by designing a pilot program. With dockless bike share, cities and campuses generally start with a limited number of bikes and/or test geography. Washington, D.C. recently extended its dockless bike share pilot (including e-bike share) to examine how bikes are used in the spring and summer months. Pilot programs are a chance to collect data around a specific program and evaluate outcomes, moving beyond theorizing to measuring real-world impacts.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

Quick Build: Cities are supporting a new generation of “quick build” bicycle infrastructure. These projects can start as a one-week “tactical urbanism installation that doubles as a first test and community outreach. Los Angeles, through the People St. site, streamlines bike corrals, a good model for cities seeking parking solutions for dockless bikeshare. Quick build projects will be critical if growth in e-bikeshare rapidly overwhelms local bike infrastructure.

Mobility Hubs: Mobility hubs aggregate various modes, providing options and easy transfers. They can be as simple as co-locating a bus stop and an e-bike share station or creating a bustling new mobility transfer center and development hub. Mobility hubs can provide covered bike parking with charging stations and racks with easy ground level access designed for heavy e-bikes. The stations would be designed to facilitate fast, safe transfers for travelers accessing transit on foot, by bike, by rideshare, or by connecting transit lines. Mobility hubs can provide adaptable design and flex space to test and integrate emerging and future technologies and complementary smart city technology. Mobility hubs should be designed with upgraded, multimodal infrastructure to the hub from the surrounding area such as protected bikeways and intersections.

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Credit: European Cyclists’ Federation

As North America’s leading bicycle and pedestrian planning and design firm, Alta is applying innovation and technology to active transportation. The New Mobility Group is part of the Alta Innovation Lab, a unique research forum dedicated to fostering and prototyping innovative mobility concepts to advance and transform human-centered transportation.

We create great places that harness the power of technology while maintaining the value of timeless placemaking principles to support healthy, active, and connected communities. For more information, reach out to our New Mobility Group.

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