Easy. Too easy. That's what it feels like riding Lyft's new electric bike. I took a prototype for a spin in New York City by the waterfront near Chelsea Piers. It was a breezy, four-mile ride, and even though the temperature hovered around 80 degrees, I didn't break a sweat.
This ebike from the ride-share company won't be going on sale. Instead, it will sit in docking stations alongside existing electric models in New York's Citi Bike fleet later this year, following its introduction into another Lyft-owned bike-sharing system in Chicago. If you're in San Francisco, you can try it out sooner than anyone else: Lyft is kicking off a public beta next week with Bay Wheels, the bike-share system Lyft operates in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The updated ebike model comes from a collaboration with Motivate, a company Lyft acquired in 2018 that operates and services its bike-share programs. The main improvements over Lyft's previous ebike? The new one is beefier, allowing it to house a bigger battery for a significantly increased 60-mile range, and it delivers higher torque for faster acceleration as you kick off from a traffic light.
The new two-wheeler arrives at a time when Lyft's various bike-share programs are setting ebike ridership records, a dramatic rebound from the declining rides Lyft saw early during the pandemic last year. In May 2021, Lyft says Citi Bike saw more than 1 million ebike rides in a single month for the first time, with 10.6 rides per bike per day. (In comparison, the company's classic, non-electric bikes hit 2.8 rides per bike per day).
The experience of piloting the new Lyft ebike isn't too different from that of riding the company's current offering. Everything on the new bike is just more refined. To get started, activate the bike by scanning the QR code on the bike's display using either the Lyft app or your bike-share system's dedicated app. Pull the bike out of the dock, adjust the height of the seat—there's a broader height range now—toss any belongings on the roomy front rack, and start pedaling.
“We wanted to have a super-safe and durable experience for our riders," says Gary Shambat, lead product manager at Lyft. "We want this bike to just be even more seamless and magical—just hop on and ride it, you don't need to have a cognitive overload about how to switch gears. We really focused on longevity, power-efficiency, a really big battery, and more hardened components that are more bespoke and harder to tamper with.”
The components and wires are all neatly enclosed, giving the bike a sleek look, aided by the iridescent white paint job. It's retroreflective paint, meaning the bike will reflect car headlights for improved visibility at night. There's also a customizable color-changing oval LED that glows on the front, an always-on taillight, and an easy-to-use bell. All of these appointments make you very hard to miss if you're riding at night (like the tandem cyclists in Men in Black II).
There's no throttle to twist or gears to shift, and unlike many commercial ebikes, you don't need to manually cycle through the different levels of pedal assistance to find the right amount. The quiet 500-watt motor knows exactly how much power you need, automatically adjusting the assistance as you ride, and it's never too much or too little. The assistance starts right as you pedal too, so you never need to push off with added force to get the motor to engage when you're starting from a full stop.
Trying to speed up and get to the bike lane on the other side of the road before cars intersect? No sweat—you can go up to 20 miles per hour. Going up a hill? Your legs will feel like Superman's. Slowing down? The motor cuts off as soon as you stop pedaling. The suspension does a solid job of keeping rides smooth, and the rear hydraulic brake halts quickly. It really is effortless to ride.
It might be too effortless. The current ebike used in Lyft-operated bike-share programs can still make you huff and puff, especially when riding up steep hills (or the Williamsburg bridge), but the more powerful motor and improved acceleration in the new model makes for smoother, easier rides. Lyft says it's considering implementing a way for riders to choose the amount of assist they want via the app or on the bike's display, in case people want to get their heart rate up.
A recent study of cyclists in Germany found that participants ended up riding more regularly with pedal-assist bikes over traditional bicycles and were able to hit the standard recommended goal of 150 active minutes per week. That wasn't the case on non-pedal-assist bikes.
The degree of benefit somebody gets from an ebike ultimately depends on what it is displacing, says Jennifer Dean, a transportation and micromobility researcher at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. If someone transitions from a car or public transit to an electric bike, then the increased mobility is going to improve health. Not so much if it's replacing walking or pedal bikes.
“However, what we're seeing in research is people who are riding ebikes are going further than they traditionally would on a bicycle,” Dean says. “The consensus right now is that because riders of ebikes are going further and taking more challenging terrain even with the assist, the health impact is comparable [to traditional bikes]."
The Lyft ebike's display between the handlebars will show basic ride data (like speed and battery level) and has a speaker to announce instructions for unlocking and parking. But the company says it's toying with other uses, such as navigation.
That brings us to the next big improvement: connectivity. Unlike current ebikes in Lyft's fleets, the new model is equipped with Wi-Fi and GPS. For riders, the bikes are easier to locate using the street map in the app, especially in markets where the bikes are dockless. But the new connectivity features also allow Lyft to issue firmware updates over the air, whether it's to remedy bugs or add new features. It can even track stolen bikes or monitor the hardware in real time for any physical tampering. Shambat says none of this data is shared with third parties.
There are safety sensors embedded throughout the bike too, and these can report problems such as dead batteries, broken cable locks, or faulty brakes to the servicing team. This is important, especially considering that Lyft had to recall hundreds of ebikes out of its fleets in 2019 after dozens of riders were injured from brake malfunctions.
“They're all talking to each other," Shambat says. "We want to know how things are going, and so we're constantly monitoring.”
Despite the bulkier size, the new ebike still fits in existing docking stations. Select stations will soon become electrified to recharge the bikes when they're docked, but most will still see service teams swapping batteries when needed. The much-improved range on the updated models means batteries won't need to be swapped as frequently.
None of this means standard pedal bikes are going away. Cities restrict the number of pedal-assist bikes available in a fleet. For example, Lyft says New York City allows only 20 percent of its fleet to be electric: roughly 4,300 out of 22,000 bikes. These limits could increase as ebikes gain popularity.
Since the US went into lockdown in early 2020, electric bike usage has surged. Ebike sales grew by 137 percent in 2020 over 2019, according to the NPD Group. Samantha Herr, executive director of the North American Bikeshare Association, says ebikes are in higher demand in bicycle-share programs too.
“In our 2019 shared micro-mobility state-of-the-industry-report, we did see that ebikes were being used more intensively in systems than traditional bikes," Herr says. "We also saw that 15 percent of bike-share bikes were ebikes, and about 28 percent of cities with bike-share systems in North America include ebikes. We're absolutely seeing those numbers increase." (The 2020 report will arrive this summer.)
With restrictions on long-distance travel and uncertainty about the safety of public transit during the pandemic, cities closed streets for automobiles and opened them up for bikes and other methods of micro-mobility, like electric scooters.
“It was a really positive impact," Herr says. “We can see that there is a groundswell around the kind of rapid response that happened during Covid, and there is this momentum of making more of these changes permanent. It just kind of sped up something that was already happening.”
But ebikes are still a relatively new mode of transportation in many areas across the US, and that does introduce new issues. Namely, accidents. Jennifer Dean says automobile drivers and pedestrians aren't used to accurately gauging the speed of electric bikes.
“You can't judge accordingly if you're going to make an attempt to cross the road in front of what you think is a traditional bicycle, or you're making a right or left turn in an automobile and that bike is coming a lot faster than you're expecting,” Dean says. “So we're seeing injuries, and those injuries are related to a lack of awareness by road users.”
Perhaps it's a good idea then that the new Lyft ebike looks as flashy as it does. It stands out much more compared to current electric models, though those aren't going anywhere just yet.
“We don't want to prematurely yank them off the streets if they're doing well,” Shambat says. “Eventually, they'll reach an end of a lifetime where we have to scrap and recycle them. Then you'll see more and more of the new generation.”