Emil Rofors rides an e-bike around Berkeley.
Emil Rofors, a post-doctoral fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, rides his e-bike in South Berkeley on Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

A lot more e-bikes might be humming through Berkeley before too long. 

Low-income residents have until March 8 to apply for a new city-funded program, run through the nonprofit Waterside Workshops, that will give out 50 free e-bikes this spring. Those chosen via lottery will be able to keep the bikes for a year, with a $100 security deposit refunded when the bikes are returned.

And, if a contract now being negotiated between Lyft and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) goes through, the city could get 260 new rental e-bikes stationed at nine docking stations by July 2027. The contract would add 2,700 new e-bikes across the Bay Wheels bike share network serving Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco.

E-bikes are surging in popularity across the U.S., helping commuters save money amid rising fuel prices and make it to work without a sweat or the headache of finding parking.

For both Berkeley and the MTC, incentivizing e-bike ridership is part of a strategy of reducing car trips to achieve climate goals. 

Cutting transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions — which make up the lion’s share of Berkeley’s carbon footprint — is key to the city’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2045. The MTC is working to nearly double biking and walking commute trips in the Bay Area by 2050.

Apply now through March 8 for one of 50 free e-bikes

“I believe our climate goals are meaningless if we do not make a concerted effort to give people options to get around town other than a car,” councilmember Rigel Robinson has said, calling bikes a “means to an end” of stopping reliance on fossil fuels.

In addition to the new free e-bike program, Berkeley is planning to put $400,000 behind a point-of-sale rebate this year that will discount e-bike purchases for all city residents, with low-income residents qualifying for larger discounts. 

The California Air Resources Board will launch a similar rebate in the coming months limited to residents living below 300% of the federal poverty level. Voucher amounts will be up to $1,000 for a standard e-bike or $1,750 for a cargo e-bike. The $13 million program will only fund 4,000 to 7,000 vouchers across the state, and the CARB expects demand to be much higher. 

East Bay Community Energy is also planning to launch an e-bike rebate program this year.

Free e-bike recipients will need to bring bikes in for quarterly check-ups, share monthly odometer readings

For low-income residents, the upfront cost of e-bikes — up to $3,000 for models that can hold kids in the back — poses a barrier to access. 

That’s where the city is hoping its Berkeley E-bike Equity Project (BEEP) can come in.

To qualify, you have to be a Berkeley resident 18 or older who earns less than 80% of the area median income for Alameda County — such as a family of four making under $106,000 annually or an individual making under $74,200. You can also qualify if you participate in SNAP, PG&E CARE or Medicaid.

BEEP’s funding comes from a $250,000 grant from the city’s pilot climate equity action fund, established in 2021. 

Some of the funds will go toward a bike mechanic job training program for 50 youth interns who will assist with delivery, assembly and maintenance of the e-bikes. 

Residents chosen to receive free e-bikes will need to pay the $100 refundable security deposit, bring the bike in for quarterly maintenance checkups, participate in a safety training, share monthly odometer readings, and complete four surveys. 

They may be able to keep the bike once the program ends, according to Waterside Workshops Executive Director Neil Larsen, though plans have not been finalized.

Specific bike models have not yet been decided, and will be informed by application responses, but Waterside is envisioning a mix of single-rider bikes and cargo bikes, which can fit one or two kids in the back, Larsen said. 

Rental e-bikes could more than triple in Berkeley

You’ve likely noticed rows of Lyft’s blue Bay Wheels bikes in Downtown Berkeley or encountered one of the hundreds of Veoride, Link and Spin electric scooters (some with seats) scattered around town. 

When it comes to shared e-bikes, however, options are limited: Spin, the only company offering them in Berkeley, currently operates just 100 in the city

If the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Lyft reach a deal, the number of rental e-bikes in Berkeley would more than triple. 

Lyft would build 30 new docking stations across the East Bay under the $15.9 million contract MTC is offering, including the nine in Berkeley. Specific locations would be worked out between Lyft and individual cities, but the MTC would require 20% of the new stations to be built in “equity priority communities.” In Berkeley, that includes large portions of West and South Berkeley. (Lyft didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Lyft’s e-bike rollout hasn’t been without problems in the past. Some of the company’s e-bikes were recalled in 2019 due to brake issues. 

MTC spokesperson John Goodwin said the commission was aware of safety concerns and has addressed them in the proposed contract by requiring that all Bay Wheels bikes (including the new e-bikes) undergo a maintenance check at least once every two months.

Lyft’s e-bike programs in San Francisco and San Jose have come under scrutiny for its complicated pricing structure and for rates that can be more than taking an Uber. The MTC’s proposed contract would require Lyft to lower the cost of annual membership to $150 and reduce per minute e-bike fees to 15 cents for members. The MTC would subsidize 20,000 discounted memberships for college students. 

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...