Transportation

‘Superhuman’ electric bikes are coming to Sacramento. And you can rent one for $2

Sacramento will get 900 electric-assist rental bicycles next summer.
Sacramento will get 900 electric-assist rental bicycles next summer.

Bicycling in Sacramento is about to get a big jolt.

A Brooklyn-based company is planning to bring 900 electric-assisted bicycles for public rental to the streets of Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis, starting in May.

The bikes will rent for $2 per half-hour and are capable of going 20 miles per hour. Each will have an electric motor in its frame that senses how hard the rider is pedaling and offers a power boost to allow the person to go faster or ride at the same speed without pedaling as hard.

“It is not a bike, it is not a scooter, it is somewhere in between,” said Ryan Rzepecki, head of Social Bicycles, which is calling its bike rental business JUMP. “It’s just a joy. You feel superhuman riding it.”

Social Bicycles, which also goes by SoBi, will own and operate the bicycles as a for-profit business in Sacramento. But it is cooperating with the three local governments and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to get the business launched.

SACOG is pledging $1.3 million toward helping set up infrastructure to handle the bikes. That likely will be in the form of bike racks that can be used by people who rent JUMP bikes, or by people riding their own bikes, SACOG officials said.

The e-assist bike plan represents a major strategy change for Sacramento officials and Social Bicycles. Previously, the company had signed a deal to bring regular bikes to Sacramento next year, where they were to be operated with more local government input and a $3.5 million government subsidy.

Since then, Rzepecki said, his company tested electric-assist rental bikes in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco and discovered they are popular and appear to increase the number of people willing to rent a bike.

“It has transcended the regular biking population,” he said. “It’s newer, more advanced and more attractive, so you have more people who are willing to do it than ride a regular bike.”

At the same time, several other privately run bike companies have entered markets in many cities, essentially pre-empting those governments’ attempts to authorize and control a single operator in their city.

The new plan involves Rzepecki’s company taking the financial risk of owning and operating the system, under permitting rules established by the three local cities and with the understanding that other private companies could jump in to compete against SoBi.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen said the revamped plan seems better than the original idea, especially given the fast-changing nature of the young bikeshare industry.

“This proposal has the greatest chances of success,” Hansen said. “It reduces the financial risk to the public of the system not doing well, and it gives us the e-bike assist. A lot of riders prefer that for this type of system.”

SoBi has been soft-testing a limited fleet of regular bikes for rent in central Sacramento in recent months. That pilot project will end completely, Hansen said, but it is uncertain when.

The cities expect to finalize their permitting regulations in the next few months. Those regulations will include requirements for the SoBi network to be spread out geographically enough to serve more than just city centers. Hansen and other officials say they want the ride share system to benefit people who have less money and who may not be able to afford a car. He said the initial geographic boundaries have not yet been worked out.

Officials said they are still talking with SoBi about what type of battery charging system would be employed. Some of SACOG’s $1.3 million could potentially help SoBi set up that system. But it is possible that SoBi employees could go from bike to bike, replacing depleted batteries with charged ones.

The 20-mph speed limit for the bikes allows them to still be categorized legally as bicycles. Under state law, bicycles are to be ridden on the street rather than the sidewalk, and cyclists must obey all laws that cars and other motor vehicles obey.

Jim Brown, head of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, said the move to e-assist bikes makes sense, allowing more people to ride and go farther and faster than they could on regular bikes. “It’s like the pedaling is magically easier,” he said. “It makes the fleet more accessible.”

He said he hopes it will prove to be popular and prompt local cities and counties to want to invest more in bike lanes.

Sacramento and West Sacramento launched a bikeshare program on Thursday. Bikes are available for rent at 14 locations around central Sacramento and on the West Sacramento waterfront.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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