Santa Barbara’s burgeoning electric bike-share operations could hit a serious pothole if the state legislature passes a bill — Assembly Bill 371 — that would require private bike-share companies to obtain insurance that would cover the cost of injuries and deaths caused by negligent riders. Statewide bicycle lobbyists with CalBike argue the additional costs could put “most, if not all shared micromobility systems out of business.”
CalBike says the bill introduced by Los Angeles Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, chair of the legislatures Black Caucus, could require companies like BCycle — which provides the flotilla of 180 white-basketed e-bikes that operate downtown and in certain neighborhoods—to obtain up to $500,000 worth of insurance to cover the negligence of riders.
“We anticipate serious financial impacts to shared mobility operators,” said Jessica Grant, City of Santa Barbara’s transportation planner.
Jesse Rosenberg, spokesperson for BCycle, said it remain unclear what the bill’s impact will be, but stated, “The implications could be severe.” Whether or not that’s enough to put the company — backed by Trek — out of business, she said, “I cannot give you a simple yes or no answer. This is a much larger matter at hand that is being discussed internally.”
CalBikes lobbyists argued the requirements would be both unprecedented and unfair. Rental car companies are not liable for the negligence of drivers, they argued; roller-skate shop owners are not similarly encumbered.
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Prompting this legislation in the first place was the risk encountered by the author’s brother — a blind high school principal in Washington, D.C. — by masses of electric scooters and bikes left on the sidewalk, impeding his pathway. The bill would also require that all shared bikes and scooters bear signs written in braille letters so that the identity of the offending vehicles could be known to visually impaired pedestrians.
The bill is currently bottled up in the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, where compromise language is being hashed out. On the table is just how much insurance operators would be required to provide.
In Santa Barbara, electric bikes have achieved a new critical mass in the past two years when BCycle first launched its electric-bike-share program downtown. Bikes here are parked in clusters of three in special charging docks installed in 66 specified locations on streets and sidewalks. As of the end of July, these bikes accounted for 170,000 trips taken, 590,000 vehicle miles travelled, and roughly 600,000 pounds of carbon dioxide offset.
While the popularity and utility of the bike-share program is obvious, the rise of electric bikes in general has become a safety issue of growing public concern. The BCycle models were engineered to go slower than many other e-bikes on the market; their top speed is 17 miles per hour, compared to the 28 mph top speed of other models. As City Councilmembers wrestle with the future of the State Street promenade, few issues arouse such hackles as the proliferation of electric bikes, along with scooters, skateboards, and more traditional bikes ridden with wheely-popping abandon.
According to Transportation Planner Grant, three accidents involving BCycle were reported last year; two were severe enough to require a visit to Cottage Hospital’s Emergency Room. This year, according to BCycle’s Rosenberg, there have been two accidents.
Right now, BCycle does not provide insurance for such eventualities. “It is up to the rider,” Rosenberg stated.