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E-bikes were set for Sacramento suburbs this fall. Then came Trump tariffs, tech trouble

Here are the rules for riding electric bikes and scooters in Sacramento

The city of Sacramento hosted educational pop-ups on shared scooter safety at three major intersections on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. The city could soon have 2,000 shared electric bicycles and scooters.
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The city of Sacramento hosted educational pop-ups on shared scooter safety at three major intersections on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. The city could soon have 2,000 shared electric bicycles and scooters.

Hardware issues and pressure from President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports have delayed the rollout of electric bikes and scooters in three Sacramento suburbs, likely until next spring.

Elk Grove, Folsom and Rancho Cordova were each expected to receive up to 50 bikes and scooters this fall from ride-share company Gotcha, as part of a $150,000 pilot program funded by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

But Gotcha CEO Sean Flood said meeting that timeline at this point would be “challenging”

“I think that there’s still work to be done, we obviously have work to do on our end, making sure that the product is stable and available,” Flood said. “We want to be fully transparent. We want to be upfront.”

The pilot program is meant to replicate the success of the city of Sacramento’s current ride-share programs, as well as other major cities and college towns in the United States.

Gotcha’s interest in the Sacramento suburbs would mark one of the first attempts in the country by a shared vehicle company to explore expanding its stock outside of dense, urban areas.

But delayed rollouts in cities and college campuses across the country have plagued the South Carolina-based company this year, as Gotcha works to rapidly expand its influence and compete against other shared mobility companies like Uber’s Jump and Lime.

Bikes for the Burlington area of Vermont are stuck overseas in China; North Carolina’s East Carolina University campus program has been delayed until September; launch dates for systems in Waco, Texas and San Diego’s North County have been postponed indefinitely.

An updated locking system on new bikes pushed out into existing communities in the Gotcha network have had some hardware and software issues, exacerbating delays, Flood said. He said the company wants to fix those bugs before sending out new devices to programs that have yet to launch.

In addition, Trump’s trade war with China has put heavy burdens on Gotcha, making it more difficult to bring in bike components and pieces into the United States from mainland China, Flood said.

“That is a taxing, it’s kind of an ironic word, but its a taxing thing for businesses in our space,” Flood said .”You pay more for things, whether the cost of goods or travel expense or just the straight tariffs. As soon as all of those things start happening, they have real effects on the supply chain.”

Flood said that within a couple of weeks, he hopes Gotcha, SACOG and the participating cities will draft a contract with a realistic timeline and specific launch date.

“SACOG is disappointed that Gotcha has been forced to delay the rollout in Elk Grove, Folsom, and Rancho Cordova but understand that it has been impacted by the same trade policies that are affecting the entire economy,” Executive Director James Corless said in a statement.

“We look forward to seeing residents enjoying the advantages of shared-electric bike systems in spring.”

Scooters in the suburbs

Once they do get here, what’s the viability of electric bike- and scooter-share programs in the suburbs?

Regional officials say the bikes and scooters could help workers easily get food during their lunch hour, or travel the last mile between light rail and their job, according to Rancho Cordova Vice Mayor David Sander.

“This is a job center of 75,000 people coming here to get to work,” Sander said. “If you can get some of those cars off the road and have people use a train instead,” the city would be in a much better position to mitigate traffic and environmental issues.

Likewise, Elk Grove city strategic planning and innovation program manager Carrie Whitlock hopes to get a “cross-section” of users.

“For employees on lunch hour who are going to run out a quarter mile to get their lunch and come back,” she said, “or (people) who just need to do a quick trip.”

gotcha.jpg
SACOG/Gotcha

In the last decade, bike- and scooter-share systems have exploded globally, with cities viewing the rentable vehicles as a novel and relatively cheap way to expand transit options, while connecting neighborhoods and solving the issue of a “last mile” leg of a trip between a public transit stop and a person’s destination.

And in Sacramento, Uber’s cherry red Jump bikes — and increasingly, scooters, including those from competitor Lime — have become a common presence in bike lanes and on sidewalks. More Sacramentans rented Jump bikes than used Uber rides last year, making it the only city where Uber operates both bike and car services where bikes are more popular.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi touted the Sacramento program last fall, calling it an example of “smarter, safer and more efficient ways of getting people from A to B.” Between Jump and Lime, more than 1,350 devices operate on city streets.

But most ride-share companies have shied away from dropping bikes or scooters in bedroom communities, said UC Davis transportation researcher Dillon Fitch.

In most sprawling suburbs, vehicles would be spread too far apart to be considered practical for regular use.

“If I’m going to use Gotcha bikes to make a long trip to the grocery store, what happens if that bike is gone?” Fitch said. “If I can’t get it within a walking distance, I’m not going to use it.”

Fitch said a one-way bike share program could work in a suburb, but that it would require potentially thousands of bikes in a confined service area — 50 vehicles per city is “probably nowhere near the density you would need to ensure a user could make a trip and find a bike on their return.”

“I do think there’s a need even in suburban areas to use shared mobility but there’s not a lot of data behind that,” Flood said. “While in these three markets there’s no guarantee of the outcome, I think we do see value in proving that theory out.”

Where will the bikes and scooters be?

Rancho Cordova will likely see docking stations for bikes at the Sunrise and Mather Field/Mills light rail stations and eight to 10 other yet-to-be-determined locations, Sander said.

Elk Grove bikes and scooters will have a service area of about a one mile radius roughly between Laguna and Elk Grove boulevards and Bruceville Road and Old Town Elk Grove, Whitlock said.

Folsom has not determined the location of its docking stations or hubs, said spokeswoman Christine Brainerd. The Folsom City Council has yet to review the Gotcha-SACOG program proposal.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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