Even though San Francisco is locked into the same Motivate contract that restricts East Bay cities, it was able to secure e-bikes — seen here near the Salesforce Transbay Transit Center — after going through an arbitration process mediated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Photo: Motivate

The deal that brought corporate-sponsored bike sharing to five Bay Area cities is restricting the availability of newer generation electric-assist bikes in the East Bay.

The cause for the delay is the exclusive contract signed between San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, Ford GoBike’s parent company Motivate, which has built the sprawling system of almost 4,000 docked pedal bikes, and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

The 10-year bike-share contract, which expires in 2025, obligates member cities to formally request that Motivate deploy e-bikes in their cities and wait 90 days before they can open the process to third-party companies if there is no agreement.

Berkeley and Oakland have gone through the request process. However, the MTC has asked the two cities to wait and to go back to the negotiating table with Motivate rather than open it up to other companies — even if they have the legal right to do so.

“[T]hey were preparing to take an action, our view was that both sides would benefit from more discussions,” said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the MTC. “What we’re asking for is that all the cities that have an existing agreement with Motivate slow down and have a more thorough conversation. We believe that having a solution that is reasonably coherent across the region is a good thing, [as]transportation doesn’t tend to respect political boundaries.”

While Rentschler points to the benefits of a regionally planned and consistent system, Dave Campbell, advocacy director of Bike East Bay, said his organization is disappointed to see the East Bay cities step back from increasing transportation options for residents.

“I want to see e-bikes deployed in much greater numbers and in much greater areas,” said Campbell. “The challenge with going with one provider [is whether] they can deploy enough bikes for the whole Bay Area in addition to e-bikes or do we need multiple providers to cover the whole area. Maybe private mobility companies would be a better solution.”

Unlike East Bay cities, San Francisco does offer e-bikes, which use a small electric motor and battery to assist riders as they pedal, helping riders scale steep hills or traverse long distances. San Francisco currently has more than 500 e-bikes available from Ford GoBike and via Uber-owned dockless e-bike company JUMP. Even though San Francisco is locked into the same Motivate contract that restricts East Bay cities, it was able to secure e-bikes after going through an arbitration process mediated by the MTC. The result was a compromise allowing JUMP to enter the San Francisco market with a pilot of 250 e-bikes and Motivate with its own 250 e-bikes as part of its own pilot project.

“[W]e played a mediation role with San Francisco,” said Rentschler about the deal. “[It’s] fair to say we’re playing a similar role with Oakland and Berkeley.”

Ford GoBike’s San Francisco e-bike pilot runs for 12 months and ends in April 2019. According to the company’s website, its e-bikes can attain speeds of up to 18 miles per hour and, during the pilot, they cost the same to rent as the company’s pedal bikes — $2 for the first 30 minutes-plus and $3 for each 15-minute increment. There is no extra charge to rent e-bikes for those with annual memberships.

“Our pedal-assist bikes continue to be extremely popular in San Francisco, getting people further more easily than ever,” according to a written statement by Julie Wood, Vice President of Communications and External Affairs for Motivate. “We look forward to expanding the program to the East Bay [and] to make the bikes available to more Bay Area residents.”

E-bikes now join pedal bikes and electric scooters as the latest entrant in a fast-evolving array of electric-powered transportation options for Bay Area residents.

JUMP, according to Nathan Hambley, a spokesman for JUMP’s parent company Uber, reached a deal to deploy 50 e-bikes in the Presidio, which is federally controlled and not part of the Ford GoBike deal. San Francisco also has the right to allow another 250 JUMP e-bikes in October, which would bring the total number of e-bikes in San Francisco up to 800.

Although some residents and bike advocates complain that the exclusive deal between the five cities and Motivate limits options, there are real benefits, according to the MTC’s Rentschler.

“[W]hat Motivate has offered these cities is stability, continuity and a great deal of market certainty for customers,” said Rentschler. “Some people want more, that’s completely understandable. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how we do more in a stable bike-share environment, that’s what we want to do.”

The lack of e-bike share in Berkeley is not diminishing or restricting the use of these new bikes generally, according to Scott David, co-owner of Berkeley-based Pacific E-Bikes, which sells e-bikes and also retrofits pedal bikes with electric motors. David says he has seen a noticeable increase in his sales since Ford GoBike first offered e-bikes in San Francisco in April. He estimates that one in six bikes that he sees in Berkeley is now an e-bike, including many of the specialty cargo bikes that include large storage areas in front or extended child seating in the back.

“We went from averaging 4–5 bikes [sold] a month to where in June alone we sold one bike a day. I think we topped out at 24–25 bikes,” David said, attributing the spike to people who tried a Ford GoBike e-bike in San Francisco and wanted one at home. He has seen the popularity of e-bikes increase for several years and does not view Ford GoBike e-bikes in the East Bay as a threat to his business.

E-bikes have a range of between 30 and 50 miles and are sold in several Berkeley bike shops for anywhere from $1,200 to $6,000 or higher. The bikes are especially well-suited to replace short trips that otherwise might rely on a car. Recent Department of Energy data showed that almost 60% of all vehicle trips in the United States are fewer than six miles long.

E-bike share is only one piece of the fast-evolving array of electric-powered transportation rental options available to Bay Area residents. San Francisco is only now allowing electric scooters to return to its streets after chaos erupted earlier in the year when companies such as Lime and Bird deployed scooters on city streets without permits, which led to a city-wide ban.

On the other hand, Oakland welcomed electric scooters, allowing multiple companies to deploy in the city with minimal oversight. At the same time, Berkeley rejected scooters from the get-go, and has also come down hard against dockless bike share companies such as Lime, which operate in Albany and El Cerrito but are not allowed to operate in Berkeley — or Oakland — because of their exclusive deal with Motivate.

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Stuart Luman is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. He has previously been an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a fact checker at Wired Magazine, and a high school English teacher in East...