Houston BCycle has added 25 electric bikes to its docking stations around the city, with plans for more. The e-bikes have been modified to cap assistance at 12 mph.
Photo by Lenard Smith Jr.

BCycle rolls out the first batch of its electric bikes, which could help riders go farther and choose to bike more often. The boost from the e-bikes, along with plans to install more docking stations, should extend the network’s reach and improve access to biking for many in the city.    

While ridership declined significantly from March to July in the cities with the nation’s largest bike-share systems, it’s been higher than ever in Houston. The city’s BCycle bike-share program has seen record rentals during the pandemic. In eight cities, including New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Boston, trips fell 44% from March to May. San Francisco ridership saw the greatest dive, plummeting 60%.

Many have wondered and weighed in on how biking’s big boom during the pandemic can be extended — and even expanded — once a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available and administered. Whatever happens, realistically, it’s unlikely to continue unabated.

Regardless, if you ask Doogie Roux, the surge won’t be a wasted opportunity to learn to nurture the love of biking and improve it for all Houstonians.

“How do we take this as a starter for people who want to do more? Or, how do we take this as something that we cultivate, so people can do it more efficiently and safer and on a more long-term basis?” asked Roux, director of operations for Houston Bike Share. “It’ll take more outreach and education, and supporting underserved and forgotten-about communities, as well as more resources and development to cultivate and perpetuate the bike boom.”

One possibility is to ride the swelling wave of popularity that electric bikes continue to enjoy. And Houston BCycle, which is operated by Houston Bike Share, is fully onboard. The program began its electric bike rollout last month, adding 25 e-bikes to its docking stations around the city. It plans to add another 75 e-bikes by the end of the year, and another 100 by March of 2021.

The addition of electric bikes is critical, Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in late April after the Commissioners’ Court approved his proposal to purchase 100 e-bikes for the Houston bike-share program using $250,000 in Precinct One discretionary funds.

Dug Begley wrote in the Chronicle:

(Ellis) noted his own four-block bike trip to the dry cleaner prior to the court meeting Tuesday left him needing to clean up because of the muggy morning. In communities where cycling has not caught on or is considered a last resort, the aid from electric motors can be consequential.

“It changes things,” Ellis said. “Then you get beyond the fear of rain, you get beyond the heat.”

In total, the plan provides $842,700 for the e-bikes as well as an expansion of the system — an additional 320 regular bikes and 30 new docking stations, with half of those planned in low-income areas, including Northside Village, Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward.

All 30 will be located in Precinct One, and they'll help close some of the large distance gaps between the system’s current stations. Six of them will be placed along the Columbia Tap Trail, which stretches four miles from EaDo, through Third Ward, to Brays Bayou. The 30 new stations, combined with other 2021 expansion plans, will push the total number of docking stations to 160 next year.

E-bikes adopted in many cities, but not all

By adding e-bikes to its fleet, Houston Bike Share joins a number of bike-share systems in other U.S. cities that have done the same. One city that has no plans to offer e-bikes is Boston. In September, Streetsblog MASS reported on reasons why the city’s Bluebikes network wasn’t going electric, including the fact that, under current Massachusetts state law, e-bikes are illegal on bike paths — though it appears that may soon change. Concerns about equity have been raised as well because the e-bikes would cost more to use than the bike-share program’s regular bikes.

Some bike advocates in Boston view the equity issue differently.

“A lot of lower-income communities and communities of color have less access to transit, and longer trips to jobs and services,” Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, told Streetsblog. “If e-bikes can reduce commute times and the amount of physical effort that’s required, that might actually help reduce the Boston region’s transportation inequities … The city has an obligation to explore this, to provide another, easier transportation option.”

The potential of e-bikes

Purported benefits of e-bike use include flexibility in transportation options, reduced congestion and emissions, health benefits and financial savings.

Research has shown e-bikes encourage riders to cycle farther and more often than conventional bicycles. They can also benefit people who might otherwise avoid riding a traditional bicycle because of age, disability, physical fitness limitations or inconvenience (e.g., Commissioner Ellis’s sweaty four-block ride).

A study of bicyclists in Oslo (birthplace of Vision Zero) found that they were choosing to cycle more often and going farther — 340% farther on average — on e-bikes than they were when using traditional bikes. The share of trips they took by bike went from 17% on a normal bike to 49% on an e-bike.

Researchers at Portland State University found that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 12% each day in Portland, Oregon, if just 15% of the trips taken by car were taken instead by electric bike. Annually, the study found, a single e-bike could lower the city’s CO2 emissions by 496 pounds.

Nationwide, more than 35% of car trips are a distance of three miles or less, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey. The City of Houston estimates that each day, nearly 4 million of the trips Houstonians take are less than two miles from home, and just 1–3% of those are made by biking or walking.

And the limited-but-growing research on e-bike safety indicates crash risk is the same for e-bikes and conventional bikes.

To address any concerns about the safety of e-bikes — both for riders and those around them — the BCycle e-bikes have been modified to cap assistance at 12 mph.

In Texas, electric bikes are viewed in the same way as normal bicycles, with the same rules of the road applying to both. According to the nonprofit bicycling advocacy group People for Bikes, in Texas, e-bikes generally can be used anywhere bicycles are allowed.

The state has designated three classes of e-bike based on top-speed capabilities and the type of assistance the bike’s “motor” provides. Class 1 e-bikes have motors that assist only when the rider is pedaling, and the pedal-assist cuts off at 20 miles per hour.

Class 2 e-bikes are equipped with a throttle that can be used to propel the bike without pedaling, but only up to 20 mph. Class 3 bikes — like class 1 — are solely pedal-assist, but they are more powerful and can reach speeds up to 28 mph with motor assistance.

“The biggest step we took was to limit the assist of e-bikes to 12 miles an hour,” Roux said. “That was a big deal.”

For an experienced cyclist like Roux, a comfortable cruising speed is 18–20 mph. But for the average BCycle user, those speeds can be “scary,” and unnecessary when considering where a lot of bike-share users, particularly recreational users, ride the bikes. Popular routes include Hermann Park to Rice Village, Montrose to Washington Avenue, short rides in the Museum District and downtown to the Heights, along White Oak Bayou trail.

“There are more people (on the trails). There’s other pedestrians, cyclists, walkers, joggers — the full range of people out enjoying and utilizing the trails,” Roux explained. “That consideration, combined with the operational strain of having to change out and charge batteries, ultimately led to the decision that 12 miles an hour would be an ideal cap on the assistance of the e-bike motor. It would allow us to maximize operations, maintain safety and have a pleasant experience for the users.”

Roux said Houston BCycle doesn’t have a target ratio of e-bikes to conventional bikes in mind for the fleet, but noted that the bike-share system in Madison, Wisconsin, has gone 100% electric since the initial e-bike introduction. The e-bikes show up as a lightning bolt on the BCycle app, so users there were able to locate the kiosks where they were available and go rent them.

“They noticed that e-bikes were ridden two to three times more than the other bikes,” he said.

Roux realizes the current bike boom will slow at some point, but, he said, that won’t change the bike-share’s strategy for maintaining and driving growth.

“We’ll just continue our efforts in equity and advocacy,” he said. “You know, marketing is not outreach. And we’re looking to do more outreach. We’re looking to do more education and help more people understand safe cycling, bike-share commuting and micromobility as a whole.”