Shareable electric bikes have arrived in Seattle. Limebike, which operates about 3,000 analog bikes in the Seattle area, started a soft launch of its “Lime-E” bikes in Seattle this weekend. Currently, around 300 of the bikes are launched around Seattle, noted in the app by a lightning bolt on the marker.
By Valentine’s Day—that’s this Wednesday—the plan is to have 500 on the street. Eventually, Limebike hopes that around 40 percent of its Seattle fleet will be electric.
Limebike vice president for marketing Caen Contee and director of strategic partnerships Gabriel Scheer told Curbed Seattle that they hope the new e-bikes break down barriers to participation.
“Right now, our bikes are being used a lot for first [and] last mile trips,” said Scheer. With e-bikes, other kinds of trips—those that might otherwise be taken in an Uber or in a single-occupancy vehicle—might be taken via bike instead. Before this, said Scheer, “there just wasn’t an easier way.”
“Easier means I can’t show up to a meeting sweating and feeling like I just had to haul to get there,” added Contee.
This is a long-awaited day in hilly Seattle. As the docked bike-share program Pronto headed toward its demise, the city mulled the idea of a electric bike-share program. Funding for that idea was eventually scrapped.
When the city pivoted to a private bike-share pilot, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) built the rules with electric bikes in mind, with specific rules governing electric-assist. While standard bikes have a minimum fleet size of 500, there’s no minimum for electric bikes. Companies have to share fuel-level data with the city in the same way they share ridership, location, and other data.
Some safety guidelines were written specifically for electric bikes, too; electric bikes in the program must have “fully operable pedals, an electric motor of less than 750 watts, and a top motor-powered speed of less than 20 miles per hour when operated by a rider weighing 170 pounds.”
The pilot ended in December—the city isn’t taking new vendors at the moment, and existing companies have to operate within the pilot framework. SDOT is trying to figure out what’s worked about the program and what hasn’t. The program could be made official with City Council approval sometime in July.
In the meantime, Limebike has been in communication with other municipalities in the Seattle metro. The company quietly launched their wares in Bothell, at the top of the Burke-Gilman Trail, officially earlier this month, but Contee and Scheer told us the line of communication is open with other areas, as well—regardless of whether there’s an official framework in place. That note is especially important as people travel further with electric assist.
“We’re going to see bikes going places we didn’t expect,” acknowledged Scheer—could Limebike’s team end up finding bikes in Everett or Lacey?
That expanded range doesn’t mean Limebike is rolling out official rules with other municipalities anytime soon, but the company has been in contact with other cities “to make sure we can effectively respond to any issues that may arise,” said Scheer.
When you launch, said Contee, “you have to call basically everyone around [and ask], ‘what are you comfortable with?’”
We got to take one of the bikes for a spin. The assist is designed to “smartly adjust to adapt to the users’ natural pedal experience,” and in our time on the bike, that was accurate. We didn’t conquer anything too massive on the Lime-E—although Limebike assures us that bikes easily climb hills of up to 30 degrees, more than enough for even Seattle’s steepest grades—but a test ride from Second Avenue downtown up Pike and John to the top of Capitol Hill had the feel of riding a high-geared bike on flat terrain.
Scheer said the bikes were designed to be “not intimidating” for a nervous rider or someone who hasn’t ridden for a while.
“My goal here is to remove cars from the road, period,” said Scheer, adding, “Even if you’re someone who remains in your car, we’re making your life easier.”
Contee agreed. “The reality is whether you look at Seattle or San Diego is, how do we get rid of single occupancy vehicles?”
With Seattle’s growth, said Scheer, “we just can’t keep putting cars on the road... it doesn’t work, physically.”
The idea is, eventually, that bike-sharing becomes a part of everyday city life. “To some extent the bikes start to fade into the background as part of the urban furniture,” said Scheer. The bikes stood out at first—but then again, said Scheer, “cars are part of the urban furniture,” too.
The company is launching these new electric models in kind of a limbo period—the pilot is over, but the program isn’t formalized—but neither Scheer or Contee seems worried.
“It’s been a really inclusive partnership [with SDOT],” said Contee.
“The city is aware it needs a lot of different tools to move people around,” added Scheer. “We’re just excited to be a part of that.”