Despite being hailed by some bike advocates as a way of finally taking urban cycling mainstream, the dockless e-bike experiment may be in trouble. Last week, Uber’s bike service, Jump, sent out an announcement to users in Atlanta and San Diego: The company was pulling all of its e-bikes from Atlanta by Friday, September 13, and from San Diego the following week.
Uber, which acquired Jump in April 2018, is the newest major entrant to the dockless bike wave, following in the footsteps of Lime and Lyft, which both launched their dockless e-bike shares in early 2018. Jump, which at its peak operated in 23 North American cities, has been in San Diego for a year, and Atlanta for only nine months. But this summer, Uber also ended its Jump operations in Staten Island, Dallas, and San Antonio, raising questions about the long-term viability of private free-floating bike shares. In February, Lime announced that it would pare back its bike program in favor of e-scooters. A spokesman for Lime told Outside that doesn’t mean that bikes will disappear entirely—he points out that there are 4,500 still on the streets of Seattle, which doesn’t yet allow scooters—but that the company has seen a shift in demand from customers. (Lime declined to provide usage rates for scooters versus bikes.)
In San Diego, Jump pulled both its e-bikes and e-scooters after tension with the local government, which implemented new rules and fees on free-floating bike shares in July. Jump responded to a request for comment with a statement saying that it hoped to resume service in the future and that it looked forward “to working with the city to develop more sensible regulations.” It declined to answer other questions.
In Atlanta, the relative popularity of e-scooters appears to be the reason for the decision. Eight companies, including Jump, offer scooters in the city, and that’s reduced interest in bikes. Julie Wells, the former general manager of the city’s public bike share program, says this is largely because of the city’s lacking bike infrastructure. “It feels comfortable riding scooters on sidewalks, and there are no rules around them,” she says. “But because people don’t think our roads are safe, they aren’t willing to ride the bikes.” Wells says that the scooters are also less expensive to manufacture, and cheaper to maintain, which makes it more affordable for companies like Uber to put them on the streets.
Some bike advocates see the loss of dockless bike shares as a blow—the e-bikes were a way to push cities for safer bike infrastructure, and the companies themselves at times acted as allies. For example, Lime shares usage data with cities to help them make more informed traffic decisions, according to a company spokesperson. And “Uber was committed to providing e-bikes as a great transportation option,” says Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, which partnered with Jump on education and outreach. “A lot of people saw the e-bikes as an entry-level way into bike commuting.” But Uber laid off many of its community outreach coordinators, along with other marketing positions, earlier this year, says Zoe Kircos, director of grants and partnerships with the advocacy group People for Bikes. (We reached out to Uber to confirm, but they declined to respond.)
Dockless bike share companies have struggled with technical and political challenges. After a rash of complaints, The Seattle Times tested the city’s e-bikes this month and found that only half of Jump bikes and a quarter of Lime bikes were charged and rideable. Atlanta banned both e-scooters and dockless bikes after dark following several instances in which drivers killed scooter riders. Guerrilla tactics—in California, Bird e-scooters have been dropped in cities in the dead of night without permission—have led to stricter penalties for all dockless companies. Haphazard parking of the bikes and scooters has also worried disabilities advocates, who say that companies haven’t done enough to make sure sidewalks and crosswalk ramps remain clear.
At the same time, Uber, which has expanded from ride shares to meal delivery to bikes in the past two years, reported a $1.3 billion operating loss in the second quarter of 2019, and has yet to turn a profit. A number of observers believe the company is overextended. It’s unclear if the pruning of Jump has to do with those financial challenges, but “that’s the question on everyone’s mind,” says Kircos.
That e-scooters are apparently winning over e-bikes isn’t necessarily a negative from a bike advocacy perspective, Hanshaw says. Bike shares created momentum for infrastructure, and scooters can continue it. “I see everyone from people in suits to tourists riding them,” he says.
But while Wells agrees that scooters might drive public support for safer streets, she adds that it will take time to engage scooter users—who are typically younger and more diverse than bicycle advocates—toward this aim. “What we now have is a massive group of new people that we haven’t figured out how to tap into and mobilize,” she says.
And some bike advocates are okay with the downfall of private dockless bike shares. Ryan Packer, a senior editor at the Urbanist, a Seattle website that emphasizes transit activism, says that public docked models like NYC’s Citibike are preferable because they tend to serve more neighborhoods, and are more reliably stocked. Public bike shares can also directly set and enforce maintenance standards and provide accessible pricing.
At the same time, there might be lessons to be learned from private floating bike shares, Packer adds, pointing to Portland, Oregon’s Biketown program as an example. There, the publicly managed bike share takes a hybrid approach: bikes (not electric for now, though e-bikes are coming) can be locked anywhere, but through a combination of credits and fees, the city encourages users to leave them at docking stations. Packer believes that a bike share that acts in the public interest is still best run by a public entity. “Other types of transportation are partly subsidized,” Packer says, “so why not bike shares?”