Uber’s Plan to Rent Electric Bikes Is Good for Uber, Traffic, and You

Uber has introduced a revolutionary new product: an electric bicycle.
Uber has introduced a revolutionary new product. Jump Bikes

Uber, $48 billion transportation-technology giant that it is, has a new product for you to try out. No, it’s not a flying car. It’s a bicycle.

Next week, the Uber app will give users in San Francisco the option of reserving a pedal-assist electric bicycle from Jump Bikes, a dockless bike share startup. Jump brings two innovations to the traditional bike share model. First, its motorized bikes provide power as you pedal, making climbing hills or traveling long distances a breeze. It’s a little like riding a scooter. Second, its bikes—tethered to GPS, with a built-in lock—can be left anywhere there’s a street sign to chain up to.

Andrew Salzberg, the head of transportation policy and research at Uber, told the New York Times this was just the first step of Uber’s integration of bike sharing. The bicycles will cost $2 for 30 minutes of use; customers will pay a per-minute fee after that, as they would on a city-run bike share program.

In the U.S., bike share is still largely considered a novelty confined to universities and downtown tourist circuits, though systems in New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago have made a dent in local travel patterns. But that’s nothing compared to what has been unleashed in China by dockless bike share, the model being exported and copied worldwide by companies like Jump. The latest data suggests that the advent of dockless bikes has caused the bicycle’s share of transportation mileage in Chinese cities to leap from 5.5 percent to 11.6 percent. In Shenzhen, 500,000 dockless bikes have cut car travel by 10 percent.

There is plenty of skepticism that model can catch on in the U.S. The most convincing argument is that American cities are simply too large and too sprawling for anything but the personal automobile. It’s true that few Americans will be biking to work anytime soon. But nearly half of all driving trips fall in a distance range that could be covered comfortably and quickly on an electric bicycle. According to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, 43 percent of car trips are 3 miles or less. That figure rises significantly in urban areas.

These middle-distance trips are where electric bikes can really change the calculus of sweat, fear, cost, and speed that determines American transportation choices. This has already begun to happen in Europe, where e-bike sales are starting to rival those of regular bikes. Here, though, the barrier to entry remains steep. Electric bikes are expensive—they typically run in the low four figures. Few Americans have ridden one, or even seen one. Well-capitalized start-ups can play a big role just by introducing people to the technology.

Uber, of course, surely sees other advantages: Shorter trips by bicycle would free up drivers for longer ones. Less traffic makes all trips faster. If Uber winds up elevating e-bikes to a prominent place in American urban transportation, that would be a real boon for cities, even if it means expanding the company’s hegemonic role as a shared mobility provider. But more likely, I think, the company’s role here is to introduce a new idea to a skeptical public, like a supermarket might introduce wary shoppers to a frozen saag paneer.