As winter approaches, dockless e-bikes launch in Salt Lake City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lime bikes, on Main Street, in Salt Lake, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

Four months after Lime dropped hundreds of dockless e-scooters on Salt Lake City streets, the company hopes that people shedding their scooter habit with the cold weather will pick up an electric bike instead.

The company swapped out about 50 of its scooters in favor of a fleet of the green and yellow LimeBikes “without fanfare” on Monday, said Gabriel Scheer, Lime’s director of strategic development.

The e-bikes, like the company’s scooters, are dockless and battery-powered. They cost the same to rent, as well — $1 up front plus 15 cents per minute — and are picked up through the same app. But Scheer said the company hopes the bikes offer users something different.

“One of the things that’s exciting to me about us being able to bring these here to Salt Lake City was the ability to essentially extend kind of the season,” he said. “I mean, for some people, they’re not wanting to ride scooters anymore. The weather is turning. But they may still be willing to ride a bike. You do a little more exertion on a bike, so you tend to be a little warmer.”

The company’s strategy with both the scooters and the bikes is to bridge the gap in a person’s last mile of transportation and to reduce the number of car trips they take. And Scheer said the bikes may help people get further on their journeys than a scooter could.

“You still have to pedal them," he said, "but the motor will kick in and take you up to 15 miles an hour. So it can help people get a little further a little faster and give them yet another reason to get out of their car.”

Scheer said it’s possible the company will have to pull its scooters and bikes altogether in the name of safety if the weather gets too bad but said it is waiting to see what the season looks like. The company is also looking to see how many people are interested in and use the bikes before increasing the size of the fleet.

When the popular e-scooters first came to Salt Lake City, officials scrambled to create a temporary operating agreement to establish licensing requirements, safety regulations and limitations on how many dockless devices could be scattered around the streets.

The bikes will operate under those same regulations, according to Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City’s transportation director. The city’s long-term plan is to draft an ordinance regulating the services. But until then, the one-year operating agreement requires Lime and companies like it to share aggregate data about how many people are riding its products, puts limits on where they can be left (they can’t, for example, be dropped in driveways, on private property or sidewalks) and limits a company to 500 dockless devices in the municipality.

City officials have received a number of complaints about the scooters — namely unsafe sidewalk ridership — but Larsen said he doesn’t expect the dockless e-bikes will create many problems.

“In some ways, bikes are easier because they’ve been around for longer and people are more comfortable with using them and maybe more comfortable leaving them on a bike rack or the like,” he said. "Hopefully [they’re] more willing to ride them in the bike lanes instead of on the sidewalk, as well.”

But the dockless e-bikes may cause even more trouble for GREENbike, the city’s nonprofit bike-share program, than the scooters have.

Just seven weeks after the scooters launched, GREENbike ridership had decreased by at least 5.3 percent compared with the year before, according to data shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. And it’s possible the hit was as big as 10 percent to 11 percent when taking into account the company’s upward trajectory, according to founder and executive director Ben Bolte. It’s too soon to say whether the e-bikes will have a similar impact.

As Lime waits to see whether its e-bikes will be successful, Scheer said he hopes residents will be willing to embrace the bikes with as much vigor as they did the scooters.

“I’m just really excited about how things are going in Salt Lake City,” he said. “The city has shown a lot of leadership. The community has shown a lot of leadership by adopting these products and trying them out and using them. So I say, generally speaking, it’s just really exciting to see how people are utilizing our fleet and we’re really excited to continue to grow.”