By Robbie Webber
On June 18, the Madison, WI, bikesharing system became the first in the U.S. to switch its entire fleet to electric pedal-assist bikes, although other cities have been adding e-bikes to their fleet for several years. Results from a comparison of e-bike vs. standard bike usage show pedal-assist bikes may be the key to increasing bike mode share, especially as part of a city bikesharing program. In addition, recent studies also show that we are still getting plenty of exercise, even when getting help from the electric motor.
The Madison BCycle system is the only one that is owned and operated by Trek, whose headquarters are just over 20 miles from downtown in nearby Waterloo. Because of the friendly relationship between the city and the bicycle company, Madison has been a testing ground for some of Trek’s ideas over the years, so it is not surprising that its system would be the first one to go fully electric.
Data gathered shows that people really like the new bikes, are taking more trips, and are riding longer. Getting electric-assist bikes out on the street may be a way to increase the number of trips taken by bike overall. Since the e-bikes were introduced in Madison, total trips more than doubled over 2018 numbers, and the trips per bike, per day has almost quadrupled. Since these statistics include some time before the system became fully-electric, the increases may be higher.
So why did Madison BCycle decide to fully convert their fleet? Morgan Ramaker, Executive Director of BCycle, explained that they wanted to increase overall ridership and make bikesharing a more mainstream and meaningful part of the transportation system.
“We wanted to reach people who hadn’t considered using our bikes before. Having electric-assist bikes opens it up to people who might not have been willing to try the heavy standard bikes. We think that as people see others using the electric bikes—and see how easy it is—they will think, ‘Hey, we could use that instead of walking, driving, or waiting for the bus.’”
The increases are especially impressive given that Madison’s system is a bit sparse outside the immediate downtown, but Ramaker says that they hope to start filling in gaps and expanding farther from the downtown. “Although best practices say that people are generally only willing to walk five minutes to and from a bikeshare station, maybe they’d be willing to walk seven or ten minutes if they know they can make up the time by zipping along a bit faster on the bike.”
Since the conversion, BCycle survey data shows that 77 percent of trips are by monthly and annual members, so the usage increase is not just from people trying the bikes for a joyride or from visitors. Of members surveyed, 37 percent say they use a car less often, and 54 percent had never tried an e-bike before.
The appearance of so many e-bikes and the easy public access to them has raised some concerns. One online forum user said he expected a fatality within a month due to inexperienced users suddenly being able to travel much faster. Others have complained about an increase in users traveling at excessive speed on already-crowded area paths. Fortunately, there have been no fatalities or even injuries due to the new bikes, and most users are riding calmly in order to arrive at their destination less damp and disheveled in the hot and humid Wisconsin summer.
So does the arrival of e-bikes mean the end of getting exercise as part of transportation? A new study says “no”. Because the pedal-assistance makes using a bike easier, faster, and less likely to make one a sweaty social pariah, e-bike owners are using them for longer trips and more frequently than study participants that owned only a regular bike. However, the real gain in physical activity was among study participants that switched car trips to e-bike trips.
Both a local American example and a study from several European cities show that e-bikes encourage longer and more frequent trips by bike, findings that can inform decisions for both public health and transportation planning.
Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.