Electric bicycles are booming in popularity across the U.S. As cities look to support non-car forms of transportation to reduce both congestion and emissions, bike-share companies are quickly realizing that electric-assist bikes can attract a wider range of ridership than basic pedal-power cycles. While some places, like Madison, Wisconsin, have swiftly converted their bike-share systems to entirely electric, in other places, the road has proven a bit bumpier.
In June, Lyft reassured residents of the San Francisco Bay Area that their bike share would be back up and running soon—and better than ever. Earlier in the year, the company (which acquired bike-share provider Motivate in 2018) had to pull the electric-assist bikes from their fleets due to a braking issue. In the hilly Bay Area, where the e-assist bikes found an enthusiastic ridership and made up half the fleet, the loss was significant. So when Lyft announced last month that not only would the e-bikes be returning, but that the whole bike-share system would be rebranded as Bay Wheels with a focus on better service, people were excited.
Among San Francisco bike commuters, though, that excitement has soured. Instead of seeing docks filled with e-bikes again, Bay Wheels (formerly Ford GoBike) members have been dismayed to see those docks largely empty of both regular and e-assist bikes. Riders have taken to Twitter to complain about the lack of service, many posting screen shots of the app showing a clear lack of bike availability. Reportedly, the number of Lyft bikes available has declined from 2,000 to 1,100. In response, Bay Wheels tweeted on June 25: “We hear you. We understand bike availability recently has been below what you expect. We are taking this seriously and working hard to bring you more bikes (and fast).” According to Lyft, they’re extending memberships by three months for free to make up for the patchy service.
But a conflict between Lyft and San Francisco is holding things up. The company is suing the city of San Francisco on the grounds that it’s violating an agreement it struck with Motivate (now Lyft) in 2015. Four years ago, San Francisco granted Motivate exclusive rights to operate a regional bike-share network in the Bay Area. This was back when Motivate’s primary business revolved around docked, pedal-power bike shares. But two years ago, Motivate agreed to let San Francisco pilot a trial with Jump, a dockless electric bike company now owned by Uber. At the time, Motivate was not operating either dockless or electric bikes, so the competition was not as overt. Now, however, the terms have changed. With Lyft in charge, Motivate is leaning into new e-bike and dockless technology; the promised Bay Wheels e-bikes (which are operating in San Jose) come with a new locking mechanism that enables them to either be left at a dock or parked free-range on the street. That would enable Lyft to rapidly expand without the city siting and permitting new docking stations.
But in the meantime, San Francisco is getting antsy to swiftly grow the bike-share offerings in the city. Currently, Lyft’s system comprises around 2,000 bikes. San Francisco wants to see that increase to 11,000. Lyft tells Fast Company that San Francisco gave the company a goal to expand their fleet to 8,500, but Lyft was not informed that the actual number of bikes they want in the city was higher than that. In May, San Francisco began soliciting requests for pilots from other dockless bike-sharing companies. When Lyft pushed back, claiming the solicitation violated their 2015 agreement, San Francisco responded that the contract only governed docked bike-share systems. Lyft says that is untrue: Dockless technology may not have been on the scene to the same extent when the contract was drawn up, but the document applies to all bike shares, the company says. Lyft is now suing the city and is seeking an injunction to block all competitors. As they grapple with this lawsuit, the promised Bay Wheels e-bikes are sitting in a warehouse in San Francisco; as the lawsuit unfolds, SFMTA is not granting Lyft a permit to roll out its new bikes.
There are mixed feelings about this—and lessons for other cities to learn as they also look to grow their bike-share offerings. Some policy analysts feel the exclusive provider model is the best for local bike shares, because it generates enough business for a company to enable them to operate in less populated areas. But others are in favor of a “more is more” approach, and say multiple providers are ultimately better suited to meet demand. But in San Francisco, one thing is clear: As the city tries to encourage cycling, a dearth of bikes in the existing dock infrastructure is not supporting that aim. The future of bike shares in the city, quite literally, hinges on the result of the Lyft lawsuit. If San Francisco upholds Lyft’s exclusive rights, the company will have to work swiftly to regain trust and ridership—and grow its bike offerings, which Lyft says it’s been preparing to do all along. And if San Francisco wants to proceed with welcoming more bike-share companies to the city, it will have to renegotiate its contract with Lyft and reach terms that are agreeable to all parties. According to Lyft, the judge is expected to hand down a preliminary ruling on the matter around July 10.