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Will electric bikes catch on in LA?

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Two e-bike companies are competing in LA’s crowded scooter market

Jump bike
Jump began distributing electric bikes in LA late last year.

Move over scooters?

A pair of private companies is peppering Los Angeles streets and sidewalks with electric bicycles that can be rented by the minute.

Jump, a bike and scooter company owned by Uber, began deploying electric bikes last year—around the same time that Metro added a handful of test devices to its growing bike share network.

Now, a Los Angeles-based startup called Wheels is deploying its own devices, which sit low to the ground and, lacking pedals, are something of a bike-and-scooter hybrid. Right now, the two companies are authorized to distribute a combined 4,000 e-bikes on streets and sidewalks around the city of Los Angeles.

Devices like these, which cut out much of the physical exertion that usually goes into cycling, might seem like a novelty (Wheels bikes also include a bluetooth feature, allowing riders to stream music through a small speaker). But they’re already proving popular in cities where they’ve been deployed.

Uber announced last week that the 1,000 Jump bikes that the company has distributed in Sacramento have attracted more than 6,500 riders per day on sunny days—more than the number of people using the company’s ride-hailing service in the city.

Wheels reported similar success during a trial run in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, with bikes there getting more than seven rides per day, according to the company.

By comparison, Santa Monica’s chief mobility officer, Francie Stefan, told Curbed in December that dockless scooters there were seeing three to four rides per day, on average.

So far, bike sharing in Los Angeles has had mixed results. In 2017, three private companies—Lime, Spin, and Ofo—began distributing dockless bicycles in the city. Since then, all three have either left the market or switched focus to electric scooters.

Meanwhile, early ridership on Metro’s bike share system, which launched in 2016, proved disappointing, and the city of Pasadena quickly pulled out of the program. Since Metro slashed prices last year, ridership has improved, but the bikes still carry far fewer riders per day than those in other systems, like New York’s popular Citi Bike network.

Terenig Topjian, founder of electric vehicle review site Have a Go, tells Curbed that electric devices could help bike share achieve better results in Los Angeles. Electric bikes, he says, offer riders a more comfortable experience than scooters, with fewer of the physical demands of conventional bicycles.

Research suggests that users also feel safer riding electric bicycles than they do on strictly pedal-powered bikes.

A study released last year by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities found that electric bikes appeal to a wider pool of riders than conventional bicycles, including older adults and those with physical limitations.

Electric bikes, wrote the authors of the report, “are making it possible for more people to ride a bicycle, many of whom are incapable of riding a standard bicycle or don’t feel safe doing so.”

The vehicles are also capable of maintaining high speeds, making it much easier for riders to cover long distances. In California, speed limits for electric bike motors are set at 20 miles per hour for most partially pedal-powered bicycles (like those deployed by Jump), and for bikes accelerated purely by use of a throttle (like those offered by Wheels).

The results of Metro’s electric bike pilot are promising. Agency spokesperson Dave Sotero tells Curbed that the 10 electric bikes that Metro deployed between November and February attracted about five riders per bike per day. Neither Wheels nor Jump responded to requests for Los Angeles ridership data.

Metro’s bikes are gone now, but Sotero says the agency will distribute “a couple hundred” electric bicycles in the coming year.

Topjian says that much of the longterm success of both bike and scooter programs in Los Angeles depends on the city’s ability to make riders feel safe when using the devices—by ensuring roads are well maintained and that protected bike lanes are easily accessed.

“At the end of the day, 95 percent of this is going to be infrastructure,” he says. “Once you get people to ride, do they fear for their lives?”