If you’ve tried one, you know that electric-assisted bicycles, or e-bikes, have some important advantages over regular bicycles. They are faster, meaning you can go farther in the same amount of time. They also require less of your energy, especially going up hills or starting up from a stop. For many people, and particularly older people or people with certain physical limitations, an e-bike can mean the difference between bicycling or not. If e-bike trips replace driving trips, the e-bikers and everyone else benefit from reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and improvements to public health.
So how do we get more people on e-bikes?
A necessary first step is to increase awareness of e-bikes. Bikeshare systems that rent e-bikes could be one way to accomplish that. These systems give people both direct exposure to e-bikes (when they rent them) and indirect exposure (when they see others who have rented them pedaling around). To test the idea that a bikeshare system can raise awareness, we took advantage of the opening of such a system in the Sacramento area (including the city of Davis, where we work). The system was operated by JUMP (at the time a subsidiary of Uber) from its opening in May 2018 to its closing in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The system offered short-term e-bike rentals through per-trip fees or a long-term subscription.
Compared to other U.S. cities, Davis has a strong culture of bicycling for everyday travel. The compact size of the city, its flat topography, and its usually mild (though sometimes very hot) weather make bicycling a viable way to get around all 12 months of the year. The city built the first bike lanes in the U.S. in 1967 and, over the years, has extended its network to 50 or so miles of on-street bike lanes and another 50 or so miles of off-street shared-use paths. Even after excluding students, bicycling rates are impressive by U.S. standards: 47% of UC Davis employees who live in the city bicycled to campus on a typical day in 2019.
On the flip side, this means that 53% of employees living in the city did not bike to campus, two-thirds of whom drove alone to campus instead. This drive-alone group, which by our estimates is over 4,000 people and represents 19% of all employees, is a prime target for the university’s efforts to reduce driving. Since they live in Davis, by definition they live no more than 5 miles from campus, a reasonable biking distance for some but an even more reasonable e-biking distance for many. Getting any of these drivers to switch to e-bikes would help the university meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Every year we conduct a Campus Travel Survey at UC Davis that asks students, staff and faculty about how they get to campus. Back in 2017, even before the JUMP system opened, we had already been curious about e-bikes and about use and awareness of them in the campus community.
Then JUMP arrived, and gave us a unique opportunity to study bikeshare’s impact on e-bike awareness, and to study, in turn, if awareness made people more likely to consider using e-bikes. The JUMP system served not just Davis but also central Sacramento and West Sacramento, and offered dockless (or free-floating) bikes, which could be rented through the JUMP or Uber apps. The bikes had three gears and were pedal-assisted up to 15 mph. Between 100 and 200 e-bikes were available in Davis at any given moment. Although the rules specified that users park bikes adjacent to bike parking racks when finished with their ride, in practice users parked and rented them anywhere in the service area, meaning they could be seen in many parts of Davis. Most important for our purposes is that the bright red bikes were hard to miss.
To assess changes in awareness, we took the same e-bike questions we had asked in 2017, about six months before bikeshare arrived, and posed them twice more: once in fall 2018, about six months after bikeshare opened, and again in fall 2019, about 18 months after. Our “target group” was university employees living in Davis who either drove or were driven to campus and who were able to ride a bicycle.
We first asked, “Do you know what an electric assist bicycle is? They are also known as “e-bikes.” This question gave us a simple yes/no measure of e-bike awareness. Anyone who responded “yes” was asked two follow-up questions: “Have you ever thought about riding an e-bike to campus?,” (a yes/no measure of e-bike consideration) and “Have you ever ridden an e-bike?” (another yes/no question). In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, after bikeshare had arrived, we added one more question: “Have you used JUMP bike share?” The surveys also included questions about socio-demographics, about how confident respondents felt riding a bicycle (from not at all to somewhat to very), and about their attitudes toward travel, including their agreement with the statement “I like riding a bike.”
A huge JUMP between awareness and consideration
Before JUMP, only 43% of the target group said that they knew what an e-bike was. Only 5.5% had ever used one. Six months later, with JUMP in town, awareness had increased to 58%, and after another year, it had grown to 75%. Awareness increased among groups who tend to bicycle the most: more confident riders and men. But it also increased among other groups. Less confident riders also became more aware as the program went on, and after 18 months, their awareness of e-bikes almost equaled that of the very confident bicyclists. Before JUMP, women were less aware than men of e-bikes, but their awareness roughly equaled that of men by the third survey.