Sunday, May 26, 2024

Rental e-bikes are on the road in New York through the city’s Citi Bikes system, as seen in this screen capture from Propel.

It could be a while before you can rent an e-bike from one of the city’s many BlueBikes stations. Several hurdles needing to be jumped first were highlighted during a Tuesday meeting of the Cambridge City Council’s Transportation and Public Utilities Committee.

While the BlueBikes short-term bike-rental system stretches across 14 communities in Greater Boston, it’s the five in a governing council – Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, Brookline and Everett – that have final say in what happens in the system. All must agree to add e-bikes and renegotiate the contract with Lyft to manage the system and their individual contracts, said Susanne Rasmussen, director of environmental and transportation planning in Cambridge’s Community Development Department. Lyft subcontracts operation of the publicly owned system to Motivate, a logistics company.

A cost model also needs to be agreed upon, and there are questions about the “scale of work,” including how many e-bikes are wanted and the need to adapt system technology, Rasmussen said.

As a result, there is no specific date for when e-bikes could be deployed. “I can’t speak as readily for neighboring communities other than to say that there’s a lot of interest and everybody’s grappling with the same desire to try to find a way to make this feasible and have an equitable cost model,” Rasmussen said.

Slow progress

City Councillor Quinton Zondervan said he was frustrated by “delays” in introducing e-bikes, other devices for people with less agility and introduction of a dockless system.

“What I am looking for is some forward progress, and I’m not seeing it,” he said.

No residents spoke during the meeting. Nate Fillmore, a co-founder of Cambridge Bicycle Safety, contacted afterward, said simply that he supports the idea of introducing e-bikes into the system.

“The big thing is that it opens up bicycling to a wider range of people who would not as easily be able to get around on traditional bicycles,” including people with limited mobility and new cyclists who are developing their fitness as cyclists, he said.

In cities with similar bike services, such as New York and Chicago, e-bikes are more expensive to rent than conventional bikes, even for riders who qualify for reduced prices based on income. The e-bikes would be around three times more expensive than regular bikes, and their operation would also be more expensive, according to information presented Tuesday.

E-bike concerns 

Safety concerns were raised by city councillor Paul Toner, who recently called for a revamp of Cambridge’s voluntary rules of the road citing concerns around new protected bike lanes and that “more residents are using e-bikes, e-scooters, e-skateboards and other methods of transportation.” Dominick Tribone, the general manager of BlueBikes, said there hasn’t been “a notable negative experience as we’ve introduced these bikes in other communities” and offered to get back to the committee with specific examples.

To Toner’s concerns about e-bike thefts, Tribone said the theft rate was “substantially lower than on classic bikes … they’re both harder to steal and less useful when you do.” The bikes have GPS, which makes them easier to track and find. When they’re not rented legally through the system app, battery pedal assist won’t function, making a stolen bike “a lot less pleasant to ride” because of its weight.

A system expansion was also discussed. Cambridge has 78 of the system’s 443 stations, or 18 percent, and more than one-third of all trips start in Cambridge, according to a presentation during the meeting. Stations in Harvard, Central and at MIT are the most used in the entire system – led by one at Kendall that Bluebikes said may be the most popular in North America.

Three more stations are planned for Cambridge this fall at 87-101 Cambridgepark Drive, North Cambridge; 55 Wheeler St., Cambridge Highlands; and a second station at the Kennedy-Longfellow School at 158 Spring St., East Cambridge. For next year, there are so far four planned, all but one around Kendall Square and in the North Point neighborhood. Nine more are planned, but not on a timeline.