When Birmingham rolls out its new bike-share program this fall, it will be the first in North America to incorporate electric-assist bikes into its fleet. The program will launch in the city’s downtown core with 40 docking stations and 400 bikes, 100 of which will have battery-powered pedal assistance.
Quebec-based manufacturer Bewegen is building the bike fleet and docking stations for Birmingham. Their pedal-assist electric bikes (the industry calls them pedelec) have a motor that kicks in automatically when the user pedals making it possible to ride up hills with the same effort it takes to ride on a flat road. Birmingham is the first U.S. city to contract with Bewegen, which was founded last year. They have one other pilot program in Portugal.
“We wanted to reduce the barriers to access for elderly people, people who are obese, people who had knee surgery or something. Anyone who still needs a little assistance, but wants access to bikes,” says Lindsey West, director of REV BikeShare, the nonprofit in charge of Birmingham’s program.
As is standard, Birmingham bike-share will offer day passes and monthly and annual memberships. Users can ride for 30 minutes before incurring additional charges. The pedelecs will help extend the distance people can cover in that 30-minute period.
Bike-share programs in Spain, Italy, Germany and Sweden already use pedelec bikes in their fleets. American bike-share programs have talked about the possibility of electric-assist bikes for years, but have shied away from the cost and added operational challenges. Holly Houser, executive director of Seattle’s Pronto bike-share, says the upfront cost and the potential added cost and headache of getting the bikes back to charging stations every day keeps them from pursuing electric assist for now.
Houser says, “When we looked into electric assist, the charge could last for about 15-20 miles, then they needed to be recharged for three hours. Our stations are solar powered so having the electrical capacity to charge bikes would be difficult.”
West says the technology has advanced far enough to make them feasible. Bewegen claims the bikes take an hour to charge and can hold that charge for 24-48 hours depending on usage. The bikes have a screen on them that tells a rider if it’s not charged enough and the bike automatically pings technicians when the battery drops bellow a certain percentage. Ten of the 40 docking stations will be charging stations for the pedelecs. All of the docking stations will be solar powered, but the 10 charging stations will have additional solar canopies to increase electrical capacity.
“On paper this was possibly one of the riskier choices and our rebalancers are definitely going to have to pay attention to the charge,” says West. “But once we really weighed our options and looked at the technology and wrapped our heads around it, we felt really positive.”
West says the pedelecs were of course more expensive than non-electric bikes, but still fell within their budget. REV BikeShare received a $2 million federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Improvement grant that the City of Birmingham matched to fund capital costs such as equipment purchase and installation and hiring. They also received sponsorship from Regions Bank, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Alabama Power Foundation and Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.
According to West, that sponsorship is fully funding their first five years of capital operating expenses. “We looked at so many other cities and tried all these different systems. We’ve really been able to look at best practices and mimic them and see some of the challenges others faced and attack them from a different direction.”
Bike-share advocates are excited about electric assist coming to America.
“Birmingham will be a spark to move pedelecs into the mainstream of shared-use bicycle programs,” says Russell Meddin, editor at The Bike-Sharing Blog and author of the Bike-Sharing World Map.
West says they know they’ll be under scrutiny as the first to incorporate electric assist, but she’s optimistic that they’ve laid a foundation for success.
“We’re working really hard to make sure everything’s going as planned. If we run into a glitch, which of course can happen, we won’t let it be a stumbling block,” she says. “I hope that this is the next generation of bike-share. Having something like this come out of the Southeast is exciting to be a part of.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.