Electric bikes will soon be among the thousands of bike-share bikes dotting Seattle’s sidewalks. LimeBike says they’ll have up to 500 e-bikes by early February.
The colorful, low-cost rentable bikes that have become ubiquitous on Seattle’s streets will soon include electric bikes, one of the private bike-sharing companies announced Monday.
LimeBike, one of three stationless bike-sharing companies operating in Seattle, said it will launch a fleet of 300 to 500 electric-assist bicycles beginning in late January and early February.
The bikes will have rechargeable batteries which can power a 250-watt motor (about one-third of a horsepower) for 62 miles on one charge, LimeBike said. The bikes have a top motor-powered speed of about 15 miles per hour.
The batteries will be replaceable and will send a signal to the local operations center when one needs to be swapped out, LimeBike said.
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Caen Contee, the company’s head of marketing, said LimeBike will look at increasing the size of the electric fleet as time goes on. LimeBike currently has nearly 4,000 standard bikes scattered across Seattle, Contee said.
Seattle had previously considered an all-electric, city-owned bike-share system, with 100 charging stations throughout the city. But then-Mayor Ed Murray scrapped that plan early last year.
The electric bikes will operate under the same basic model as the current stationless bike shares do — find them, unlock them and pay for them with a smartphone and leave them basically wherever — but they will be more expensive to ride.
Contee said the goal with electric bikes is not just to give people a boost on Seattle’s hilly streets, but to change how people look at bike shares — less as exercise or a jaunty whim, and more like Uber and Lyft.
“You can be in a suit, you can use it to get to meetings,” Contee said. “It’s going to be a transition where people no longer see this as bike share, but as the most affordable, accessible form of ride share.”
The electric bikes will cost $1 to unlock and an additional $1 for every 10 minutes of riding. The standard bike-share bikes cost $1 for every 30 minutes (for LimeBike and Spin) or $1 per hour (ofo).
But the companies, which have flooded Seattle’s streets with bikes, are engaged in a bit of a price war, as they compete for market share.
LimeBike (green bikes) recently announced that all rides in Seattle would be free for about a week.
That followed ofo (yellow bikes), which in mid-December announced that all rides would be free through the end of the year, and then extended that promotion through the end of January.
As of Dec. 1, the three private bike-share companies had nearly 9,400 bikes active in Seattle, although that number includes bikes that may be out of service or those that are being repaired.
“They really wanted to prove that they were able to get more bicycles on the ground than their competitors,” said Nikolai Mell, a former ofo contractor who recently quit, complaining of poor working conditions. “Operations managers were given a lump sum and given the instructions to just get the bicycles up there and get the rides up by whatever means necessary.”
Spin (orange bikes) also announced on Monday that it was unveiling a battery-powered bike. Those, however, are not currently coming to Seattle and are instead going to locations where Spin has an agreement with a city or college campus to be the exclusive provider of bike shares.
All three companies are operating thanks to massive infusions of venture capital money.
Ofo, a Chinese company, has raised more than $1 billion in funding, including from the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and is valued at more than $3 billion.
LimeBike has raised $62 million, according to the tech industry research firm Crunchbase, and Spin has raised $8 million.
The low prices and free rides have raised questions about the companies’ business models, which could include selling the data they collect — such as when and where riders travel.
“A lot of folks are skeptical of what kind of business model these folks have and is it really viable,” City Councilmember Mike O’Brien said last year, before the companies launched. “I share that skepticism; it’s not clear. But they’re going to be experimenting on their dollar, not our dollar.”
Contee, with LimeBike, said they are not currently selling advertising or making money off the data they collect.
That could, of course, change.
“It’s still early in conversations, but we believe as we build out a network and really have a platform in these cities that there are a lot of additional opportunities,” Contee said.
The bike-share regulations that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) wrote last summer, which were essentially the first of their kind, allow electric bikes without any further permitting, so long as the bikes can’t go over 20 mph.
“We believe e-bikes provide an additional mobility option for residents and commuters, especially those who find biking a challenge given Seattle’s hilly topography,” Mafara Hobson, an SDOT spokeswoman, said.
The city’s bike-share “pilot program” ended at the end of last month, but the companies will be able to operate as they have been at least through June.
In the meantime, SDOT will evaluate data on bike-share usage and propose a permanent bike-share program to the City Council.