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Madison is the first city to go 100% electric for its bike share

E-bikes are booming in popularity, so Wisconsin’s capital decided to convert 100% of its fleet to electric-assist bikes in the hopes of getting more people to ride.

Madison is the first city to go 100% electric for its bike share
[Photo: Trek/BCycle]

If you ride bike share in Madison, Wisconsin, you’d better prepare yourself for your commute to get a lot quicker.

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As of June 18, BCycle, the local bike share, became the first citywide system in the U.S. to transition its fleet entirely to electric-assist bicycles. “We have seen the e-bike trend in the larger bike business exploding in the past few years, and we’re so excited for it to come into bike share,” says Morgan Ramaker, exeutive director at BCycle.

BCycle is a nationwide bike-share provider owned by Trek Bikes, which is based near Madison in Wisconsin. With 47 dock-based systems across the U.S., including Indego in Philadelphia and B-Cycle in Houston, BCycle is one of the largest providers in the country. Though it’s privately owned, it works closely with local governments in each city where it has a presence to understand local needs.

BCycle ran a pilot of its electric-assist bicycles in several cities last fall in advance of the full-city rollout. “We saw ridership rise anywhere from double to up to five times the number of trips when we introduced e-bikes,” Ramaker says. Such findings are far from unique to BCycle: Motivate, which manages bike-share systems in places like the Bay Area and New York, saw a similar uptick in ridership when it began electrifying part of its fleets. And in cities like Seattle, dockless bike-share startups like Lime and Jump are now only offering electric bikes.

The reason: E-bikes are simply easier for people to ride. The extra push from a motor makes previously unconquerable hills manageable, and for people with mobility issues, older residents, or those who have not biked in a long time, the assist makes cycling more accessible. Especially as cities are recognizing the need to prioritize low-carbon transit options in the face of climate change, biking (which only around 2% of the population currently uses as mode of transit) has gained momentum as a solution. And e-bikes seem to be effective in closing the distance between the “avid cyclist” commuter set (typically fit, middle-age men who commute in spandex) and people who just want a reliable and efficient way to get around their city.

“E-bikes are something that re-excite people about bike share and reach new people that we haven’t been able to before,” Ramaker says. To that end, Madison and BCycle wanted the switch from regular, pedal-powered bikes to e-bikes to be swift. The day before the official launch of the all e-bike system, they pulled the old red bikes from the docks and quickly brought in e-bikes to replace them. The old bikes that are still in good shape, Ramaker says, will be donated to World Vision, a nonprofit that helps children living in poverty; some bikes that can’t be donated because of their condition may still have parts that can be recycled into e-bikes.

The switch will come at a higher cost to users: Annual memberships will go up from $65 to $100. But for lower-income people for whom the cost of membership is prohibitive, BCycle will continue to provide it for free through partnerships with several community-based organizations.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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