Thoughts on New Blue Bikes

Posted by Dan Favre on February 4, 2020 in Advocacy

Executive Director Shares Reflections on Major Update to New Orleans Bike Share System

Bike Easy has supported the idea of bike share in New Orleans since roughly 2008. Back then, as bike share became a possibility, our local supporters and Members made it clear they wanted it, and that position still totally makes sense. Bike share helps more people ride bikes, contributes another valuable option to the transportation system, builds awareness and momentum for bike safety and infrastructure, and, if done right, can help improve equity.

After multiple rounds of studies from various entities (Bike Easy did the first one in 2012!), the City got serious about moving forward with bike share around the time I started at Bike Easy in 2015. I was excited to engage in the fascinating and deeply complex process that led to the launch, and Bike Easy continues to play an active role in the evolution of bike share in New Orleans. With all the new changes to the Blue Bikes system coming this week, we’ve been getting a lot of questions – so stick with me as I try to answer them here!

First off, the headline news: this Thursday, February 6th, the New Orleans bike share system, Blue Bikes, is getting a big update – new bikes with e-assist, new app for using the bikes, and new pricing for some. Of course, past the headline, there are many details and nuances.

Back in 2015/2016, with the complexity of the process and sheer volume of variables to figure out in establishing bike share in New Orleans, Bike Easy decided to focus our bike share-related advocacy. Through our stakeholder-driven strategic planning process, we landed on two major priorities – equity and sustainability. Equity meaning that the bike share system would specifically be designed to serve low-income and residents of color first, and sustainability meaning that the business model would be designed to last. From there, we could work to make sure bike share supported our major goals like getting more people riding bikes and building public support and awareness for bicycle safety and complete streets infrastructure. And we knew, key to it all, was ensuring strong public participation in developing the system.

We’re pleased with the way things turned out back then, and we celebrated the arrival of Blue Bikes in 2017! Of course, not everything Bike Easy wanted to see was included in the bike share system (i.e. public financing, local ownership/partners, and few other pieces), but the benefits of having the new mobility option far outweighed any of the missed opportunities.

Today, we’re faced with a similar situation – on the whole, we see big benefits and we’re excited to celebrate the updates coming this week. And of course, from our perspective, not everything is perfect. So, let’s dig into the details.

Since the launch, we’ve been working hard to help realize the promise of an equitable bike share system, and that’s where I’ll start. As the various elements of this update began being discussed, we leaned in on two main points, 1. expanding the service area equitably and 2. keeping the Reduced Fare Program, which provides low-cost passes to residents who qualify for Medicaid or SNAP benefits ($20 per year for 60 minutes of use each day). We’re very pleased to see that the Reduced Fare Program remains fully intact and is one of the most accessible, from a cost perspective, of any in the country. The service area expansion will roll out in coming months, so details are still being worked out, but we’re definitely expecting and looking forward to seeing more low-income and neighborhoods of color included.

In general, we’re very excited for the expansion of the service area, especially as it should largely coincide with the City’s rapid expansion of the low-stress bikeway network this year!

Unfortunately, the price is going up dramatically for Pay-As-You-Go users and Monthly Pass holders. I fear that these price increases will be a significant hurdle for more local residents to try biking via bike share. There are many people in New Orleans who don’t qualify for the Reduced Fare Program that still need affordable transportation options, and Blue Bikes has now moved out of range for some folks. We’re encouraging Blue Bikes to lower the Monthly Pass and per-minute fees.

Perhaps one silver lining is that some of the rental business that local bike shops say they’ve lost will return. (I’m going to come back to some points about the business model later, as it’s gotten much more complicated since Blue Bikes is now owned by Uber.)

The big one — bikes with e-assisted pedaling

While the new Blue Bikes will look just about the same, their insides will be quite different. The bikes will provide an electric-assist when you pedal. It still feels like riding a bike, but you get a boost to your pedaling. There’s no throttle. It took me a few minutes to get used to the feel, but then again, that’s been the case on all the conventional bike share bikes I’ve tried as well. The e-assist isn’t as noticeable as you gain speed, and it goes away completely if you hit 20 mph, which was still pretty hard for me to do when I’ve ridden them.

A benefit of e-bikes is being able to go farther, faster, without breaking as much of a sweat. And of course, they’ll help with all the hills around here too smile

In all seriousness though, in my mind, the biggest benefit is that Blue Bikes with e-assist will entice more people to try biking who wouldn’t otherwise – someone who doesn’t feel like they’re in good enough shape can rediscover the joy of biking, someone with a disability can manage the bike with e-assist more easily, someone who’s just interested in the novelty will experience biking for the first time in years, someone’s who’s ride feels just too long that it’s daunting will start riding regularly. I love seeing more people riding, and I think the e-assist part of the new Blue Bikes will help with that.

In some circles, there has been a lot of discussion about the downsides, and I definitely hear the concerns regarding safety. Research on relative safety of e-bikes compared to conventional bikes is still scarce and inconclusive, and you’ll quickly go deep into the complexities of the e-bike classification system (in short, not all e-bikes are equal, and the new Blue Bikes are in the Class 1 category, which is the most like conventional bikes).

Data is even more scarce on the reduction of health benefits from riding an e-assist bike versus a conventional bike. You’ve still got to move on these things, and it’s a lot healthier than most other transportation options, but it stands to reason that there would be some reduction versus conventional biking. This all gets complicated though – if there’s a slight decrease in the health benefit to an individual rider but more people are riding so there’s a greater public health benefit, is it worth it?

In short, Bike Easy didn’t ask for bikes with e-assist, but we’re not against them. At the end of the day, more people biking and feeling like biking is accessible to them, the better off our region will be (yes, even the people who never ride will benefit!). We’ll continue working hard to make sure that everyone biking is safe – whether it’s a conventional bike or an e-assist bike, whether it’s a bike share bike or a privately owned bike, etc. I think the potential downsides of bikes with e-assist are outweighed by the potential upsides.

Along with the new hardware, there is new software as well. The SoBi app is being discontinued, and you’ll be able to check out bikes via the JUMP Uber apps. With more regular updates and development, using one of those apps should improve the user experience. The cellular network the bikes use is also changing and should result in improved functionality. As someone who has gotten shut out of the system during Mardi Gras in the Quarter, I like that!

One thing I’m not pleased with, especially as it’s happening in conjunction with price increases, is that Blue Bikes is doing away with the “bounty” credit – the $1 credit you could receive by picking up a bike that was locked out of a hub and returning it to a hub. First off, this is a fantastic way for people to help subsidize their rides, and a nod to the loyal locals who support the program. It’s also an efficient way of helping to ensure the bikes end up congregated at hubs.

The hybrid hub-dockless model here in New Orleans is fairly unique, and I think it’s a big success. It combines the flexibility and freedom of being able to lock a bike up right at your destination with the organization and consistency of well-stocked hubs. I’m afraid ending the bounty credit will slowly erode this system.

Phew, that’s a lot of details, and I haven’t even hit them all yet. But, I’m going to move on…

One overarching complication to everything about bike share in New Orleans stems from the evolution of the bike share industry globally – bike share companies are being bought out by large “mobility” companies. For example, Motivate, the country’s largest bike share operator that runs systems in Chicago, DC, New York, and more, was bought by Lyft (and just to make things more convoluted, in some of those places, the bikes were originally manufactured by Social Bicycles, which became JUMP). JUMP, which operates Blue Bikes, was bought by Uber Technologies last year, and this, of course, is what affects us.

Full disclosure – the first bike I rode around New Orleans sported a “Challenge Corporate Power” sticker (shout out to the Rainforest Action Network). That gives you a sense of my personal politics. But in my role as the leader of Bike Easy, achieving our mission has been greatly aided by partnering with companies and corporations.

Second full disclosure – Bike Easy partners with and receives financial support from Blue Bikes / JUMP / Uber on specific projects. They have been great sponsors of the Bike Easy April Challenge and Bike to Work Day, and we have contracted with them to conduct safety programming and community outreach. We’re especially proud of the work we’ve done together with Blue Bikes to promote the Reduced Fare program to workers in the service and hospitality industry. Even if we don’t agree on every last detail, we’re proud to stand together as partners in improving transportation and helping more people ride. I’m especially grateful for the hard-working local Blue Bikes team here on the ground in New Orleans. They’re fantastic people and colleagues!

Aside from your political inclinations regarding major corporations, the fact that Uber owns Blue Bikes has pros and cons for New Orleans bike share, and it certainly complicates the “sustainable business model” idea. The resources Uber brings to things like the app and backend systems will make Blue Bikes a better experience. The integration with a national system will make things easier for those of us who travel often and for folks visiting here. However, Uber is subject to forces well beyond any local control, and high-level decisions that impact us are being made by people with little to no connection to New Orleans. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on helping more residents easily and safely use bike share as a way to get around New Orleans.

One thing is clear – things will continue to change in the bike share world, and we will have to keep pushing hard to make sure bike share in New Orleans continues to succeed as an equitable and sustainable transportation option. We’ll have to keep working to ensure bike share helps get more people riding while building momentum for larger safety and accessibility street improvements. It’s worth the work, and I’m excited to partner with everyone else who truly wants to achieve those goals – from local activists to Uber, from City Hall to local businesses, and of course, with all the people who ride bikes or would like to ride bikes in Greater New Orleans.

Through all the twists and turns of this interesting bike share ride in New Orleans, we’re still heading in the right direction.

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