SALT LAKE CITY — Rentable bike and e-scooter ridership exploded in the U.S. last year with the so-called micromobility systems, typically run via smart phone apps, drawing over 84 million trips in 2018, more than twice the tally from the previous year.
The lion's share of the traffic uptick came from relatively new e-scooters and dockless bikes that descended on scores of cities in the past couple of years that, in some cases, led to chaotic outcomes.
But experts say many of the longer-running rentable bike systems with designated parking, or docks like Salt Lake City's GREENbike, are not only riding out the challenges of the new competitors but successfully providing solutions in the form of clean, cheap and healthy short-trip transit options.
Samantha Herr, executive director of the Maryland-based North American Bike Share Association, said GREENbike's launch in the nascent days of bikeshare was a risky move that has turned out to be a benefit.
"GREENbike was definitely … one of the earlier programs or systems launched in the nonprofit model," Herr said. "That’s very significant, to be one of the earlier in. (GREENbike founder and executive director) Ben Bolte and your community took some risks to go in that direction but have seen a lot of reward."
"One of the metrics you should be proud of as a community is the average of two rides per bike per day since 2013," Herr said. "For your population, that is pretty impressive."
The system that Bolte helped create, and has since overseen, is now in its seventh season and has been on a track of steady expansion since its launch. He is proud to point out that while the system, which began life with 10 stations and 65 bikes, has grown over 770 percent since 2013, the budget for operating the program has only expanded by 150 percent. The nonprofit is mostly supported through private organizations, chief among them the title sponsorship provided by Intermountain Healthcare's insurance division Select Health.
One of GREENbike's biggest single-year expansions yet is scheduled to begin late this summer and, by the end of the year, the system will grow from its current 372 bikes to 605; have 13 new docking stations including at Liberty Park and the 9th and 9th neighborhood; and extend the system's geographic footprint that, at the end of 2019, will stretch from North Temple to 2100 South and from 700 East to 700 West.
Bolte said 50 of the new bicycles will be electric powered, pedal-assist models. While e-scooter systems have fully embraced battery-powered micromobility, this will be the first foray into electric rides for GREENbike, and it's one that could help the system continue to compete with other zippy, two-wheeled options.
Nicole Payne, manager for the National Association of City Transportation Official's Cities for Cycling program, said the introduction of rentable e-bikes is changing the landscape for bikeshare programs across the country and pedal-powered bicycles have essentially vanished among dockless providers.
"It appears that non-electric, manual pedal dockless bikes in large part have disappeared," Payne said. "Seattle still has them and a few college towns … but in large part, dockless companies have changed operations to scooters. E-bikes, however are doing very well, even with the dock-based system. Those e-bikes are getting three times as many trips per vehicle as pedal bikes."
Payne also noted the continued success of many docked bicycle systems has grown from the operators' focus on working with local transit and transportation officials to help the bikes integrate with and complement other efforts to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips.
"I think GREENbike is a great example of this," Payne said. "Its growth in ridership drives home the fact that docked bikeshare systems serve as a resource.
"Docked bikeshare fits a need for people going to work, running errands or just riding with friends. Having a great relationship with local government … is one of the reasons why these systems thrive. It's all about working together to reach a goal of shared mobility."
Salt Lake City Transportation Director Jon Larsen echoed that sentiment, noting that even with three new e-scooter providers deploying some 1,500 vehicles in Salt Lake in the past year, GREENbike is still prospering, helping keep people out of their cars and making moves in the right direction to keep the system viable.
"We’re in a good place with GREENBike," Larsen said. "I think there was a concern on both sides about what would happen with the mob of dockless e-scooters coming in last summer, but they’ve weathered it really well."
Larsen said that addition of e-bikes, as well as plans in place to allow GREENbike annual passholders to check out bikes for 12-hour stints, will continue to help the system build its ridership. He also noted that it appears that the addition of e-scooters has led to an expansion of the local micromobility market, rather than just carving up a static number of users.
"The fears that GREENbike would be decimated by the scooters just didn’t come to pass," Larsen said. "They’ve taken a little bit of a hit, but overall in Salt Lake City more and more people are getting around in ways other than driving."
GREENbike says its system, since time of launch, has prevented 5 million vehicle miles from being driven on local roads, removed 4.5 millioin pounds of CO2 from the air while helping riders burn some 70 million calories in the process.
Larsen, whose department has access to ridership data for the three e-scooter operators in the city, said he estimates there have been over 500,000 e-scooter rides since Lime, Bird and Spin have deployed their vehicles. While GREENbike's rides last year come in at over 135,000, experts say users are employing the different modes for different reasons.
"What we actually see when we look at the micromobility piece of travel is that people are starting to use them for different journey types," Payne said. "Unsurprisingly, scooters are used for very short trips, under a mile, traditional pedal bikes for in-between lengths and e-bikes for trips 2-3 miles or longer."
GREENbike is also finding ways to provide better getting around options for Salt Lake's low-income residents, including striking partnerships with developers of affordable housing projects to place stations close by, and put annual passes into the hands of new residents.
Nonprofit developer Artspace has created almost 280 residential units in multiple downtown locations aimed at households that earn 34 percent to 70 percent of the area median income. The group's community outreach manager, Megan Attermann, said a GREENbike station installed about a year ago near a group of Artspace buildings near the Gateway complex has been a huge hit.
"The station installed by our Bridge project (near Gateway) has been a great success," Attermann said. "We got free GREENbike passes for residents in our building and they have been well used by our tenants … which is really awesome. People have loved it."5 comments on this story
Larsen said even with the explosive presence of other micromobility options, the role GREENbike is serving would be very difficult to replace. That, he noted, is thanks to programs to get free passes to those who can most benefit from them, a new equity pass in the works to aid those who may not have a traditional connection with a bank and the system's ongoing role in reducing vehicle congestion, parking headaches and air quality impacts in the capital city.
"With all the programs and partnerships they've created and a really exciting expansion in the works, the program has become a real presence in our Salt Lake City transportation landscape," Larsen said. "As a nonprofit, they serve a different role that isn’t going away."