As public transit took a hit during the pandemic — ridership of subway trains alone declined 90 percent in New York City — cities began rolling out fleets of electric motor bikes, or e-bikes. And those bikes, it turns out, have skyrocketed in popularity, beginning to displace nonmotorized bikes in many places.
While e-bike sales are on the rise according to industry groups, they don’t account for the actual usage. Trip data from bike-share programs — a public system of shared bikes that charge a fee — may shed some light on their use.
An NBC News analysis of bike-share data from 11 of 13 cities that have comparable numbers shows that in May of last year, e-bikes accounted for only 11 percent of bike-share rides in cities surveyed, with 240,000 e-bike rides. Last month, they accounted for 38 percent of bike-share rides, ballooning to 1.4 million trips. The remaining 62 percent of rides were on conventional, nonmotorized bikes.
The data, provided by BCycle, Lyft and open data sources, shows that e-bike rides made up more than a quarter of bike-share trips in Philadelphia and about half of all bike-share rides in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio. In the Bay Area, e-bikes accounted for more than 70 percent of bike-share trips.
In some cities, e-bikes contributed to a post-pandemic bounce in bike-share usage. In Chicago, the number of bike-share rides in May increased from 338,000 in 2019 to 531,000 in 2021, with a third of those extra rides on e-bikes.
While bike-share programs are not new, the addition of e-bikes allows riders to easily reach speeds of 15 mph, or speeds typically associated with high-endurance riders. That’s because of an electric motor that accelerates the bike as the rider pedals, making it possible to commute longer distances in a short amount of time.
The increased speeds have also raised safety issues. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a report last year that said e-bikes accounted for 9 percent of micromobility injuries. "Micromobility" refers to transit devices such as e-bikes and hoverboards.
Samantha Herr, executive director of the North American Bikeshare Association, an industry group that advocates for increased use of bike-share programs, e-scooters and e-bikes.
Herr’s organization published a report in 2020 that showed e-bike utilization grew in 2019 and they were used almost twice as often as conventional pedal bikes in an average day.
“We see [bike-share] as a piece of the broader way that people are going to get around their towns and cities,” she said. “It connects people to transit from first mile to last mile. ... It’s also filled in transit deserts.”
Chicago tried to address those transit deserts last year when it introduced e-bikes to its Divvy bike-share program, which was part of a major expansion of the program, said Gia Biagi, the transportation commissioner for Chicago.
Divvy e-bikes accounted for 10 percent of all bike-share rides in August 2020, the month the bikes rolled out, according to bike-share data. E-bike usage climbed to nearly a quarter of rides in September, and as of last month, the bikes make up a third of the city’s bike-share rides.
Biagi said the rising popularity of the e-bikes was the result of several factors.
“Folks who might have felt uncomfortable being in a vehicle, then looking at the Divvy bike and say, ‘Oh, this is a great option.’ We also offered deep discounts at the height of the pandemic to really incentivize people with an alternative option if they were feeling like they weren't ready to take public transit,” Biagi said.
In Chicago, the cost of a single e-bike ride is $3.30 to unlock plus 20 cents a minute. An annual membership of $108 eliminates the unlock fee and lowers the per-minute rate by 5 cents. Every city sets their prices differently.
The composition of a bike-share fleet can also affect how many e-bike trips there are in a system. In the New York City area in May, e-bikes made up 20 percent of the Citi Bike fleet but 38 percent of its rides. In Washington, D.C., e-bikes made up 13 percent of Capital Bikeshare’s fleet but 23 percent of the rides. In Chicago, the proportions were more matched, with a third of Divvy bikes being electric and e-bikes making up a third of all trips last month.
“I think it's only going to gain in popularity. Here in Chicago, we plan to roll out more e-bikes into the system and expand,” Biagi said.
Some cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Madison, Wisconsin, have even replaced their fleets entirely with e-bikes due to their popularity. Madison’s bike-share program is run by BCycle, which replaced the town’s entire fleet with e-bikes in June 2019.
“We saw incredible growth, double, triple ridership of what we had seen previously,” said Morgan Ramaker, BCycle’s executive director.
BCycle has bike-share programs in more than 40 cities, with 21 of them sporting e-bikes. She said that despite the pandemic hit, they saw higher ridership in 2020, especially among the systems that had e-bikes.
That trend did not hold up in Los Angeles, which saw its Metro Bike Share use decrease in 2020. Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero told Streetsblog LA that ridership had decreased by about half compared to March 2019. Metro suspended 58 bike stations last year to remove dockless “smart” bikes from its system.
California was the first state to enact a stay-at-home order, and this month the state lifted its social distancing and capacity limits.
The same decline was shown in Columbus, Ohio, where overall bike-share fell 37 percent in May of this year, down from a high of 7,000 rides in 2020. Despite that, e-bikes made up nearly half of those rides.
Still, Ramaker said the majority of BCycle systems had higher ridership overall in 2020 compared to the previous year.
“People are looking for creative ways to get to where they need to go that's not in a single-occupancy vehicle, which we really think that bike sharing — e-bikes in particular — addresses,” Ramaker said.
CORRECTION (June 24, 2021 8:14 p.m.): An earlier version of the graphic in this article misstated the names of two bike-share systems. It's CoGo Bike Share and Capital Bikeshare, not CoGo Bikeshare and Capital Bike Share.