The Lime company says maintenance teams are scrambling to re-power its green electric bicycles across Seattle this week, after an early-September stretch when many bikes were unrideable.
Depleted batteries resulted from heavy use Labor Day weekend, compounded by employee days off, according to spokesman Alex Youn from San Francisco.
“It was a perfect storm. We’re still trying to recover,” Youn said.
Seattle’s city government allows the free-floating rental bikes to be parked in public spaces, saying they provide a first-mile, last-mile transportation solution, for instance, between a transit station and the office.
But if bikes don’t work, they’re clutter.
The maintenance gap became apparent Friday when a reporter commuted from Third Avenue to South Lake Union. After 22 failed attempts along Pike Street and Eighth Avenue, the 23rd Lime e-bike was rideable. In early evening, six in Belltown wouldn’t launch.
On Monday morning, 13 attempts to ride a Lime bike — and three of six rival Jump bikes, owned by car-hailing giant Uber — failed on the waterfront from Olympic Sculpture Park to Interbay. However, the first Lime bike north of Ballard Bridge had power.
Workers outside Lime’s Ballard warehouse, where a small battery fire occurred last month, were rebuilding a green bike and testing scooters. Nearby, 14 dormant bikes stood clustered next to Leary Way Northwest, awaiting maintenance.
At Mount Baker Station, one Lime bike worked despite a wobbly rear wheel, one had no battery, and one lacked power. Two bikes worked at Capitol Hill Station, while on Broadway, a man walked away after trying a bike next to the Jimi Hendrix statue — but that bike actually worked, after tugging to free the rear-wheel lock.
Until this month, availability for Lime e-bikes was about 70 percent based on 82 trip attempts by Traffic Lab since early 2018. But in unscientific September spot-checks, only 24 of 99 Lime bikes and 8 of 16 Jump bikes activated.
Lime declined to reveal its availability goals, or recent performance data.
“While it’s lower than acceptable, not only for us but for our customers, we expect to be at our normal operations by the weekend,” Youn said.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) hasn’t noticed a surge of complaints this month, but users would ordinarily contact Lime or Jump directly, city spokesman Ethan Bergerson said. City staff do conduct routine audits. By permit, at least 70 percent of Lime and Jump bikes must be kept “in good working order.” SDOT’s spring report said Lime bikes were 94 percent compliant, and Jump bikes 96 percent. Joel Miller, SDOT’s program manager for bike share, was away this week and unavailable for comment.
“We want the program to work. Hopefully this is something Lime can get ahead of, and catch up,” Bergerson said Thursday. The city has an opportunity to review companies’ performance, and adjust the rules if needed, when permits are renewed at the end of the year, he said.
By Wednesday and Thursday, groups of fresh Lime bikes appeared along Denny Way, outside King Street Station, Second Avenue and other sites.
Depleted batteries raised a question of whether Lime might surrender its Seattle bike venture, following the Pronto, Ofo and Spin bike companies. Lime replaced bikes with scooters in the Bay Area and asked Mayor Jenny Durkan, who has voiced safety worries, to allow scooters in Seattle.
But Youn said the company is sticking with bikes in Seattle and wants to offer them along with scooters and Lime Pod cars together in the same app.
Lime scooters are available in Spokane, Everett, Bothell, Redmond and Tacoma.
“We very much are happy with the success of our bike share in Seattle,” said Youn, who emphasized Lime riders here have made 3 million trips.
Seattle is the last city with a large fleet of dockless bikes for rent, a National Association of City Transportation official said earlier this year. Lime and Jump deploy about 5,000 bikes total in the city.
SDOT’s spring-quarter report says 588,000 Lime and Jump trips were made in three months, similar to spring 2018 despite price increases and fewer bikes in circulation.
The city’s prime concern was that 17.4% of audited bikes were parked in a way that could obstruct pedestrians on sidewalks, such as blocking curb ramps or leaning against buildings. The city’s target is 3% or less.
City is installing bike corrals in an attempt to reduce blockages.
Wednesday morning, a Lime staffer showed up at 9 a.m. to repair and reorganize bikes next to Elephant Car Wash on Battery Street. He took a fresh battery from a bike lacking pedals, and inserted it into another bike to make it workable.
A day earlier, a worker in a white delivery van brought fresh bikes to park on Second Avenue at Yesler Way, while the University of Washington light-rail station also appeared to have been restocked.
Susan Ashlock activated a Lime bike at UW Station Tuesday morning and pedaled up the bridge crossing Montlake Boulevard, then the power cut out. “It’s not super-easy,” she joked, pushing the bike up to the overpass. She parked the bike and unlocked another Lime bike that worked fine, next to the station elevator.
Ashlock, who was bicycling her two-mile trip home, said the bikes are good for the environment. About two-thirds of the ones she has tried in recent months were operable, although they usually have bent pedals, she said.
“I haven’t tried Jump bikes yet, but might,” she said.
Katie Kilpatrick rode a Lime bike along Burke-Gilman Trail to UW Station, saving time instead of a two-mile walk.
“If there’s 10 parked nearby, at least one will be working,” she said. Lime’s app displays an icon depicting battery power for each bike on the map.
Liz and Mark Horowitz of Bremerton rode Tuesday from Shilshole Bay to UW, day tripping through Seattle. They parked along the trail, next to other working bikes, but in the grass uphill a cluster of eight bikes needed a recharge.
“This is our way of getting around town,” Liz Horowitz said. “They’re so wonderful for people who are willing to do it. I love these Lime bikes, they’re the best thing.”
Their trip wasn’t perfect. Her left hand was bleeding from a fall a mile west, when the bicycle wheels slipped on some train tracks.