Farther, Faster and No Sweat: Bike-Sharing and the E-Bike Boom

As with all bicycles during the pandemic, electric bikes, or those with battery-powered motors to handle propulsion, boomed. The market research firm NPD Group said sales of e-bikes grew 145 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, outpacing sales of all bikes, which were up 65 percent.

“Bike categories that catered to families and recreational and newer riders grew better than more performance-oriented bikes,” said Dirk Sorenson, a sports industry analyst at NPD, adding that e-bikes “overcome challenges like big hills or going on a longer ride than a typical bike.”

But it’s not just consumer sales that have mainstreamed e-bikes. Municipal bike-sharing systems have increasingly adopted the technology, with some cities, including Charlotte, N.C., going with an all-electric fleet during the pandemic.

Social distancing demands, the quest for safe and more accessible public transportation and sustainable travel measures have forged a growing adoption of e-bikes among travelers as well as local residents.

“Covid sort of propelled electric bikes forward by years,” said Josh Squire, the founder and chief executive of Hopr, a bike-share service.

Cities, bike-sharing companies and even a peer-to-peer bike-sharing platform (in which bike owners rent their bikes directly to users) are jumping into the e-bike ecosystem. Here’s how bike-sharing — sometimes called “micromobility” to include other small vehicles, such as scooters — has shifted in the tourism lull.

In the early days of the pandemic, bike-share usage stalled as those working from home stopped commuting. For essential workers who needed to travel, bike-sharing became an alternative to buses or trains, where they might be exposed to the virus by other passengers. Lyft, which manages bike-share fleets in nine cities — including the largest systems in New York City and Chicago — gave about 30,000 essential workers free yearly passes.

“Covid was able to highlight micromobility as an essential transportation service, filling in where transit service stopped or where gaps existed and helping essential workers get to work,” said Samantha Herr, the executive director of the North American Bikeshare Association.

As people began to leave their houses in summer, biking rebounded. In Honolulu, nearly 80 percent of members of the bike-sharing system Biki said riding was the safest form of public transportation during the pandemic. In Chicago, the Divvy bike-share system recorded its busiest month on record in August.

“To be able to try an e-bike for a very low rate for a day pass is what draws people initially to try it out,” said Helen Bradley, the general manager of Madison BCycle, where a day pass costs $15. “Then they get hooked,” she added, on the range of the bikes, which can go 30 to 35 miles on a full charge with top speed of about 17 miles per hour.

Chicago plans to have 10,000 e-bikes in its Divvy system by 2022 — it added 3,500 e-bikes in 2020 — in a plan to provide accessibility to 100 percent of the city.

Adopting e-bikes hasn’t come without growing pains. In New York City, Citi Bike introduced e-bikes in 2018, but removed them in 2019 after reports of brakes malfunctioning, causing rider injuries (similar problems forced Lyft, which manages Citi Bike, to temporarily withdraw e-bikes from its systems in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco). Last winter, New York re-introduced Citi Bike e-bikes, which reach maximum speeds of 18 m.p.h., below the limit of 20 m.p.h. later set by the city for the pedal-assisted e-bikes. There are now about 3,700 e-bikes in the 19,000-bike system; the average e-bike gets over nine rides a day, while the average for pedal bikes is 3.5.

“Putting a little bit of a motor on it makes cycling more attractive to a wider and aging audience,” said Aaron Ritz, who oversees the Indego bike-share system for the City of Philadelphia. Over the next five years, the Indego system will more than double in size, making half the fleet electric and focusing on historically underserved neighborhoods, which tend to be Black or Latin American.

“The more we shift from single-occupancy vehicles, the better, for reasons of air quality, traffic safety, environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr. Ritz said.

Gregory F. Maassen, 53, a resident of Washington, D.C., describes the district’s Capital Bikeshare e-bikes as “built like tanks to withstand a lot of abuse.”

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