Electric bikes have supercharged Madison’s bike share program.
Ridership of Madison BCycle more than doubled in 2019 following the conversion of the fleet to e-bikes, which use battery-powered motors to give riders a boost.
Company officials are hopeful that success will continue when the 2020 season begins on Sunday.
“It’s really been incredible,” said Morgan Ramaker, director of BCycle, a division of Waterloo-based Trek Bicycles.
BCycle, which has owned and operated Madison’s bike-share system since 2011, provides equipment for programs operated by local partners in 40 U.S. cities, including Milwaukee’s Bublr Bikes.
In the 11 cities that added some e-bikes last year, Ramaker said ridership has quadrupled compared with classic bikes. But Madison, the only city with an all-electric fleet, saw the greatest increase, and Ramaker is hoping other programs will follow suit.
“We really wanted to demonstrate what we thought that best-in-class experience would look like,” she said. “Now we’ve got a great story to tell.”
In addition to more trips, Madison BCycle saw a 64% increase in users in 2019, which Ramaker said is a direct result of the e-bikes.
“They don’t want to show up to meeting sweaty,” she said. “We heard from riders who said, ‘You know, I had knee surgery and so now with an electric bike I can ride again.’”
The company plans to add another 100 e-bikes this year.
Bike share is essentially a short-term rental program. Users buy passes — annual, monthly or half hour — that allow them to check out a bike from any of the 45 stations clustered along the Isthmus, near East Side and UW campus. They can then return the bike to any station.
Madison BCycle sold 43,741 passes in 2019, more than the previous two years combined, and users took more than 231,000 trips.
Overall, the bikes were ridden an average of four times per day — the highest utilization rate of any system — with some days topping 15 trips per bike.
“For bike share that’s a tremendous number,” said Madison city traffic engineer Yang Tao.
Tao said the program has been a key piece of the transportation network, especially Downtown, where bikes are often faster than cars and provide a “last mile” alternative for bus riders.
“The bike share provides an important service for our residents and our visitors,” he said. “Someone visiting Madison — instead of relying on a car that person may rent a bike and ride to UW. That fills a niche that can otherwise be hard for a city to provide.”
While the city has helped with planning and allowed BCycle to use its electricity for a nominal fee, the bike share program does not receive public subsidies.
“If a city provided a service like this ourselves, it’s going to cost much more,” Tao said. “It’s lucky for us to have a local partner willing to invest.”
While BCycle remains dependent on support from Trek, Ramaker said it’s a mutually-beneficial relationship for the bike manufacturer.
“One of Trek’s corporate objectives is to change the world by getting more people on bikes,” she said. “What better way to do that than to put 300 of them around the city, make it really easy to get on one, right? It removes so many barriers that would be difficult for a bike shop.”
While transportation infrastructure — a seat on the bus, a parking stall — has long been shared, the idea of shared-used vehicles is relatively new, largely enabled by technology like smart phone apps and computer software to manage transactions, said James Longhurst, a transportation historian at UW-La Crosse.
Bike share systems and e-bikes are part of what he calls a “Cambrian explosion” in urban mobility where everything from ride hailing services to electric scooters are competing with privately owned cars.
“These many different species are coming and going,” he said. “We should think less about the success or failure of any one. ... and more about what city transportation should be. Whatever it is now it’s not going to be that in the future.”
Ramaker said 37% of riders surveyed said they were using their personal cars less because of BCycle.
“That is one of the most meaningful things that I heard,” she said. “We do want to get people out of their cars, thinking about other ways to get around and experience the city.”
Longhurst said e-bikes may be the most efficient means of moving people in an urban setting.
“Particularly if it’s a shared e-bike,” he said. “The efficiency in space and power is something we’ve really never seen in America before. There is a potential for this to be revolutionary.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a typo in a quote by Morgan Ramaker. The quote should have read: “We heard from riders who said, ‘You know, I had knee surgery and so now with an electric bike I can ride again.’”]
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