CitiesAre all-electric fleets the future of bike-sharing?
February 10, 2022

Are all-electric fleets the future of bike-sharing?

By Harry Maxwell
electric-bike-velo-fifteen.jpg

We systematically go through the key arguments for choosing a fleet of electric bikes, mechanical bikes or a hybrid offer.

When designing a bike-sharing scheme, the electric/mechanical bike debate will be one of the very first discussions. There are 3 potential options:

  1. All-electric: electric bikes
  2. Hybrid: both electric and mechanical bikes
  3. Fully-mechanical: mechanical bikes

The very first bike-sharing schemes were made up of just mechanical bikes, back in the 2000s, but cities have made a significant shift towards electric bikes in recent years.

In this article, we go through the pros and cons of each fleet setup.

All-electric

velo-electrique-epinal-vivolt.jpgGreater Epinal's all-electric fleet, Vilvolt.

Nothing but electric bikes. What are the benefits and downsides of an all-electric offer?

Pros

+ Inclusivity: It will encourage people who wouldn’t think they are fit enough to use a standard bike to pick one up and get riding. It is also more suitable for cities where there are many hills, where parts of a region may otherwise be excluded (not in theory, but in practice).

+ Longer distances: When people use electric bikes, they travel further (7.6km) than when using mechanical bikes (3.4km). This has numerous environmental and health benefits.

+ Modal shift: Following on from the previous point, the longer the trip, the more likely it is to be replacing a trip made in a car. This will help give people an alternative to their personal cars, thus reducing congestion and air and noise pollution.

+ Popularity: Looking at the figures from the Paris scheme (see under 'hybrid' section), electric bikes are far more popular. Even though the fleet is less than 40% electric, these bikes make an average of 10 trips per bike per day, whilst mechanical bikes record just 4.

+ Natural rebalancing: When people are free to wherever they like (uphill, longer distances), electric bikes will naturally move around the city, requiring less rebalancing and reducing operational costs.

Cons

- CAPEX: Electric bikes are more expensive (mostly due to the cost of batteries). It means they require a higher initial investment to launch. As stated in the ‘Hybrid’ section, it can take significant time and resources to get a power supply up and running for the stations.

- OPEX: Running a fleet of electric bikes can also mean higher operational costs in the form of battery-swapping and charging. if you choose a free-floating system with no stations. Additionally, the parts unique to an electric bike (motor, torque sensor) can be costly to replace.

Do electric bikes really need gears?

Conclusion

An all-electric fleet is very likely to yield higher ridership figures than a mechanical fleet.

Because of this, despite warranting a higher investment, the scheme is more likely to be a commercial success in the long term.

When industry experts consider the cities of tomorrow, they see electric vehicles on every corner. It might not be a prudent investment to avoid electric bikes for much longer; an overhaul of a mechanical fleet would be far more costly than the upfront commitment to go electric straight away.

5 Steps to Launch a Bike-Sharing Service

Hybrid

A mixed fleet of electric and mechanical bikes. Let’s see what it’s like to operate!

Pros

+ Attract all audiences: With a mixed fleet, you give riders the choice to take the option that suits them best; there’s something for everyone. Some people might prefer to take an electric bike to get to work, but then use a mechanical bike on the weekends to run errands.

Cons

- Complicating infrastructure: Launching with electric and mechanical bikes means investing into infrastructure for each side. At the very least, the infrastructure available must be compatible with both models of bike, which could end up being needlessly expensive (e.g. electrifying entire stations when there are rarely electric bikes that visit them).

- Adding complexity to operations: By operating a mixed service you add a level of complexity to your operations. You need to manage two types of spare parts and train people to carry out two types of repairs.

- Rebalancing: To make sure that everyone has the choice between electric and mechanical, there will have to be more rebalancing efforts across the city.    

- Risk of electric bikes being overworked: Electric bikes are favoured by the population, and when they take more trips, this causes a host of problems.

Case study: Paris

There are 24,000 bikes in the Paris Velib’ scheme: 30% are electric bikes. Despite being more expensive to rent, electric bikes record, on average, 10 trips per bike per day, whilst mechanical bikes record just 4.

More than half of all trips are made on less than a third of the size of the fleet. And, because trips on electric bikes are longer on average, 30% of the bikes are used for 61% of the time the fleet is in use!

There are some issues that come with this. Firstly, when the electric bikes are overused (used disproportionately to the ratio of electric bikes in the fleet), they wear out faster and need maintenance more often. When the bikes need more maintenance, there are fewer of them on the street, further increasing the wear on the electric bikes. When there are fewer on the street the bikes don’t have enough time to sufficiently recharge between rides.

velib-paris-smoove.jpgThe light blue electric bikes are the preferred option in Paris.

Therefore, when a user’s preferred choice of an electric bike is unavailable, it a) impacts the user experience, and b) reduces satisfaction with the service.

These two factors combined lead to lower engagement and lower ridership numbers.

Conclusion

The perception of what operating a mixed fleet will achieve is usually better than the reality. Even though both types of bike are available, the electric bikes are likely to be used much more, to wear out more quickly and to.

The key question to ask when considering a mixed fleet:

Are mechanical bikes going to be popular enough to offset the heightened operational costs that would arise from the over-use of electric bikes?

One way in which you can do this is to have a pricing structure that strikes a good balance between ‘cheap’ mechanical bike rental and ‘expensive’ electric bike usage. This way, you balance the risk of the electric bikes being overused with a financial incentive to use the mechanical bikes, whilst also ensuring that the electric bike pricing is proportional to the higher maintenance costs.

Fully-mechanical

This is when a system is made up of only mechanical bikes. Perhaps it’s had its day?

Pros

+ Budget: A fleet of only mechanical bikes is ideal for a city with a small cycling budget. Mechanical bikes, on average, are cheaper than electric bikes.

+ ‘Active’: A fleet of mechanical bikes is healthier than electric bikes because people need to put in more physical effort to use them.

+ Simpler installation: Even though mechanical bike stations can still require some expensive road works, they don’t need to be connected to the grid, unlike an electric fleet. Electrifying stations can take some time, especially when dealing with different energy suppliers.

Cons

- Lower usage: One of the drawbacks of a 100% mechanical fleet is that it won’t encourage everyone to use it. There are some that are attracted by the thought of exercise, but not everyone. It has the potential to exclude older people, people that don’t feel fit enough to ride mechanical bikes, or people that want to get to work without building up a sweat!

- Struggle to compete: With micromobility vehicles moving onto the streets, and electric bikes now outselling electric cars, the mechanical bike risks being under-used, and having a smaller impact on the modal shift away from cars.

Conclusion

Whilst an all-mechanical offer requires less funding, it is less attractive for users than a service with an electric option, and could end up being a commercial failure.

The choice is yours

Our belief is that electric bikes are the gateway to the greener cities of tomorrow. They are more effective at connecting the suburbs and areas less-served by public transport, ensuring maximal inclusivity across a region.

However, whatever you decide, we’ll be there to help you launch, and we’ll back you all the way.

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