One year after a highly fraught launch, it remains to be seen just how well BCycle’s fleet of 140 white e-bikes scratches Santa Barbara’s itch for alternative transportation. With 81,000 trips under the company’s Santa Barbara belt — and 320,500 miles traveled — the downtown program is operating only slightly more than 50 percent its projected capacity.
Certainly, the company’s initial plans never envisioned a State Street transformed by the pandemic into a pedestrian promenade. Likewise, the company — a subsidiary of Trek Bicycles, whose owner, John Burke, lives here part-time — encountered unanticipated regulatory blow-back by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission and some significant supply-chain snags that hampered full saturation along Cabrillo Boulevard.
Even so, the City Council was told this Tuesday that the Santa Barbara launch logged the highest number of trips of any of the other links in BCycle’s chain of 47 operations. The council heard a recitation of some of the program’s start-up hiccups: 100 bikes stolen, abandoned, or not properly returned. All but three, however, were recovered. Batteries were stolen from 11.
BCycle’s program launched just as COVID struck, meaning the new, white e-bikes hit the streets just as new and old riders discovered their love of the bicycle. At the same time, e-bike popularity achieved unprecedented critical mass.
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City traffic planners found themselves responding to calls from alarmed pedestrians, fearful that downtown streets were no longer safe in the face of two-wheeled speedsters. City traffic spokesperson Jessica Grant explained that Santa Barbara’s BCycle model is engineered to go no faster than 17 miles per hour. Traditional bike riders, she said, can cruise comfortably at speeds between 10 and 18 mph. And many e-bikes are engineered to max out at 28 mph. Grant noted that only three BCycle riders got into serious accidents; two were dispatched to Cottage Hospital, and none were life-threatening.
Grant also acknowledged that two companies that rent out e-bikes reported a “small dip in short-term rentals.” They complained that BCycle’s pricing structure — $7 an hour for walk-up users — was hurting their business. Grant said that 68 percent of BCycle’s reported trips were taken by customers who bought monthly or annual membership passes.
The e-bike experiment was launched as part of a three-year trial. In the ensuing two years, the expectation is that BCycle extend its reach more broadly throughout different city neighborhoods and achieve full build-out. In the meantime, Grant disclosed that she is currently in discussion with other entities — UCSB and Goleta, to name just two — that have expressed interest in participating in a regional bike-share network.