The closest thing to rentable e-bikes currently offered in Oakland are Veo's sit down scooters, similar to Class II e-bikes. Credit: Courtesy of Veo

The City of Oakland recently announced plans to buy 500 e-bikes for a pilot rental program that could launch as early as this winter. Local bike shops in low-income neighborhoods would rent out the bikes in partnership with GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that works to improve access to carbon-free transportation options.

“The storefronts we’re seeking to engage to carry out this program already focus on serving East Oakland, West Oakland, San Antonio, Chinatown, Fruitvale, and other communities impacted by economic and environmental injustices,” GRID Alternative’s program manager Edgar Arellano told members of the city’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission at a meeting last month. Some of the bike shops they would like to work with include The Laurel Cyclery and Bikes 4 Lyfe

The Oakland Department of Transportation and GRID are asking residents to take a survey to help shape the bike rental program. They want to know at what prices people would be willing to rent a bike and which types of e-bikes people prefer based on their leisure and commuting needs. The city and GRID are also hosting focus groups. 

“This project very much goes in line with our vision for a rapid equitable transition to a world powered by renewable energy that benefits everyone,” Arellano said. 

E-bikes differ from regular bikes in that they include an electric motor, allowing riders to travel with or without pedaling, and to ride over hills without great exertion. They’re seen as an important transportation platform of the future, which could help reduce carbon emissions and air forms of pollution by serving as a convenient alternative to cars. California regulates e-bikes the same way as bicycles; riders must follow the speed limit and give pedestrians the right of way, but the law separates them into three distinct categories: Class I e-bikes have pedals and electric motors and can go up to 20 mph; Class II e-bikes don’t have pedals and are driven with the push of a button or the twist of a handle, and are capable of going up to 20 mph. Class III e-bikes have pedals and can drive as fast as 28 mph.

City spokesperson Sean Maher told The Oaklandside that most of Oakland’s e-bikes would probably be Class I and Class II: pedal-assisted and non-pedal assisted and capable of traveling up to 20 mph because they’re a better value. Whereas faster bikes cost as much as $4,500, slower e-bikes are priced at $1,500 and $2,000. Tricycle e-bikes for seniors or those with limited mobility, and cargo bikes with areas to carry items will also likely be included.  

The program will train people how to use e-bikes and users will also have to sign a code of conduct, get a rundown of safety equipment and agree to use helmets.

OakDOT said it will track the program’s impact through various rental metrics.  The department will share this data with the California Air Resources Board, the state government agency that is paying for this five-year program.

The idea for e-bike rentals came about during community meetings for the 2019 city bike plan.

Why are there so few e-bikes in low-income neighborhoods?

For-profit electric scooter and pedal-powered bike rentals have been available for almost a decade now in Oakland and other Bay Area cities. Lime and Uber offer electric scooter rentals, and Lyft runs the Bay Wheels partnership, which offers regular bikes in Oakland. None offer scooters, bikes, or e-bikes in East Oakland, though, unless a random rider takes one to that part of the city. And currently, there are no public rentals available for e-bikes in Oakland. There are sit-down Veo Cosmo scooters that function like class II e-bikes, because you can sit on them as they travel up to 15 mph. But Veo’s Cosmos are not technically or legally e-bikes. 

Only 50 of Bay Wheels’ 1,000 bikes are available in the city east of 11th Avenue, and none are stationed east of 35th Avenue.

“It’s really exciting to see that [GRID is] focusing on the areas those companies refuse to serve. Accessibility is key here,” bike and pedestrian commission member Nick Whipps said at last month’s meeting. 

Robert Prinz of Bike East Bay told The Oaklandside that there are a few reasons why there is no bike or e-bike rental infrastructure in East Oakland. 

First, bike rental providers need docking stations, places to lock a bike in when it’s not being used. And these stations need to be within about half a mile of each other.

“The utility of the system [is] dependent on station density. If a station where someone wants to park is full, they need a station somewhat nearby as a backup,” he said. 

When the Bay Wheels system was set up almost a decade ago, dockless systems were unavailable. Bay Wheels later chose not to add dockless bikes to the city, Prinz said. Part of the reason was that the original agreement with Bay Wheels was made possible because it provided the operator, the funder of the program, with advertising privileges at docked stations. Most of the stations that went up were in parts of the city with a more affluent advertising demographic, like downtown and North Oakland. 

Second, the company negotiated with San Francisco, which has a lot more tourists and other potential customers, for a higher charge for them. The previous iteration of Lyft e-bikes in Oakland, which were around until they were recalled, were offered at the same price as regular bikes. Some have speculated that Ford, the service’s first owner, and later Lyft, did not want to add bikes in East Oakland because of its lower-income population.

“The thing about for-profit mobility services is that they don’t prioritize ridership,” Prinz said. “If they can charge twice as much for half as many riders, that’s still a better deal for them since they get the same income with less operating expense.”    

Lyft didn’t respond to an interview request from The Oaklandside.

One other reason why there are few dockless e-bikes in Oakland is actually due to the city’s equity requirements

For companies with fleets of more than 250 scooters, Oakland requires that 10% “must be deployed in Fruitvale/San Antonio (defined as the area bounded by 14th Avenue, the Oakland Estuary, Highway 580 and High street) and 10% must be deployed in East Oakland (defined as the area east of High street).” 

So far companies with vehicles that fit the definition of e-bikes have chosen to deploy fleets of less than 250, thereby avoiding the requirement of deploying in East Oakland.

Veo policy manager Monica DiLlulo told The Oaklandside that the company, which is headquartered in Chicago, decides where to deploy based on demand, “app opens” (where people are looking to take a ride), and equity priority zones that partner cities and metropolitan agencies share with them.

“We obviously want to prioritize placing devices in places where people are going to ride them,” DiLlulo said.

A Lime spokesperson told us that while their fleet of scooters in Oakland is currently experiencing “technical hardware issues,” they expect to be back in the city in the near future. 

A similar investment in 2019 didn’t fully pan out

The e-bike plan isn’t the first attempt at bringing transportation options and an e-bike e-library to East and West Oakland. In 2019, Lyft gave $700,000 to the LyftUp East Oakland program, which was run by the transportation policy organization Transform. The program included community partnerships with the nonprofits East Oakland Collective and the Scraper Bike team. 

The money was supposed to create a “placemaking” process around future Oakland bike parklets and share stations, help build an e-bike library, and pilot a free ride program for low-income residents over three years. But according to former Transform manager and current Scraper Bike team board member Jamario Jackson, even after the nonprofits raised additional funding, it wasn’t enough to accomplish all of this. 

The East Oakland Collective’s Mobility4All program, for example, was to split its part of the money on free rides, bus passes, and free passes for rental bikes and scooters. But because of the pandemic, most of that money went to help needy people through car rideshares and groceries. 

“Part of their focus was making sure people were connected to places they were traditionally going to and critical to them at the time, like traveling to doctor’s appointments, jobs, childcare appointments,” Jackson said. 

The Scraper Bike team used its share of the money to expand its facility and design a bike-lending program. Ultimately, Jackson said they decided lending bikes out to young people of color was not safe.

“The headline then was that East Oakland got a million dollars in 2019 for these efforts. But a large majority of that does not go directly to the community. It has to go to setting up the infrastructure and the process to begin the work,” Jackson said. “These types of funds are not magic wands. There are so many needs that are dynamic.”

Are faster e-bikes on hazardous roads a bad idea?

Some fear placing e-bikes in East and West Oakland will lead to a rise in collisions, partly because of the city’s poorly designed infrastructure. 

“Safety is a big problem,” bike and pedestrian commission member Whipps said. 

According to the city’s research, most high-injury intersections are in East and West Oakland. Adding faster e-bikes to these neighborhoods without adding proper bike lanes and signal intersections could lead to even higher rates of collisions.

E-bikes have been shown to be involved in more collisions compared to regular bikes. In a study from 2000 to 2017, New York University professor Charles Dimaggio found e-bikes experience collisions with pedestrians at three times the rate of regular bikes and electric scooters. In the Netherlands, perhaps the most bike-friendly country in the world, the rise of e-bike riding during the pandemic also led to a spike in injuries. Other research has also found that there is an added “fun-factor” of electric power enhancement that makes people want to ride e-bikes more often than regular bikes. This makes them good for people’s health, even if they may not provide as strenuous an exercise as a full-pedal bike. But electric power can lead people to ride faster and riskier, possibly leading to injuries.

Community members The Oaklandside spoke to see both the pros and cons of e-bikes. 

East Oakland resident David P., who lives near Eastmont Mall and did not want to disclose his last name, said he thinks the e-bike library “sounds like a terrible idea.” 

“I can see someone taking advantage of the speed aspects of the e-bike and that going horribly wrong. Especially cars pulling out and not looking. It gives me a bad feeling,” he said.

Jamario Jackson said that some people don’t want to ride bikes or scooters for safety reasons or lack of ability. 

“If you’re over the age of 45, you might not want to be on a bike to go to the hospital. You might wanna ride a car,” Jackson said.

West Oakland resident Jeremiah Maller is excited about the program because it would provide Black and brown communities with new transportation resources at a low price. He added that anyone learning to ride should take their time and they’ll eventually become more comfortable on the roads. 

“It feels safe to me because I’ve done it so long. I accept a certain level of risk and a lot of my friends are not comfortable doing that,” he said. “Oakland needs more traffic calming measures to make it feel safe.” 

Maller, who is on BART’s Bicycle Advisory Task Force, said that with OakDOT emphasizing more changes to the city’s streets in favor of bikes, it makes sense they are encouraging people to bike more, including with rentals. 

“If there are no bicyclists, it’s difficult to justify new large infrastructure [serving it]. It’s like a chicken and the egg situation,” Maller said. “But if they see more people biking, some people who might not get out of a car might use an e-bike.”

Bike shops are willing to help, but also skeptical

Bike shops like The Laurel Cyclery have been asked to play a role in the city’s rental program. Art by JR deLa. Credit: Amir Aziz

Some of the shops approached by the city to help run the program said they’re interested but the city might be better off supporting the current programs each shop offers to help more people learn how to safely ride bikes and keep their bikes in working order. 

For example, The Bikery in Fruitvale served 3,000 people in 2021 through fixes, school educational programs, and low-cost bike sales. But the shop is currently struggling to make enough money to be able to do an earthquake retrofit for its building. 

Dart Kaufman, a member of the collective that owns the shop, said they also don’t have enough space or staff to service part of the new fleet of e-bikes the city wants to deploy. Improved funding could help them reach more customers, they said. 

Jason Wallach, who owns The Laurel Cyclery, one of the few shops in East Oakland, agrees that for the program to work, OakDOT and GRID need to have a near-perfect plan to maintain the bikes. Even private e-bike and scooter companies sometimes struggle to stay in business. Profit margins, if the company earns a profit at all, a slim, and expenses can add up, especially as hardware needs to be repaired. The only American-made e-mobility company, GenZe, which had a factory in Hayward, went out of business two years ago. Just recently, Bolt Mobility appears to have abandoned its fleet of hundreds of e-bikes in Richmond.

“For any government agency that is getting into this sector, if they don’t have a plan on the customer service side or on the repair side of things, the plan will fail,” Wallach said. 

GRID and OakDOT need to know exactly how much it will cost to maintain each type of e-bike, pay mechanics a fair rate, and determine how long services will last. If a shop worker needs to go out and find bikes, they will need time to bring them back, set up a parts replacement system, and maintain communication with potential renters. That all takes time and expertise, something that even a shop like Wallach’s, which fixes e-bikes, needs time to get right.

“E-bikes have different problems. You’ve got mechanical stuff and then the electric side,” said Wallach “Those are distinct types of repairs. The electrical stuff is nuanced, and you have to be able to diagnose what’s happening there.” 

He added that Oakland does not want to end up with an electric bike graveyard, like those in Chinese cities, because of poor mechanical support. 

Early conversations between the city and GRID brought up the idea that city libraries could also rent out e-bikes. After all, some library staff already know how to deal with bikes through the library’s repair program at the 81st Avenue branch. But Oakland Public Library Director of Library Services Jamie Turbak said it’s unlikely they’ll participate. 

“Such activity requires significant resources and ongoing attention,” Turbak said. 

Reginald “RB” Burnett, a former bike and pedestrian commission member, helps host bike repair sessions every Friday at the 81st Avenue Library branch, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Burnett says 10-15 people usually show up every week. As an e-bike owner and a technician, he fixes brakes and chains and takes the library’s own e-bike to community outings all over the city. 

“Families that are already looking into buying an e-bike, we show the ones we have to try out. We show them the buttons and the pedaling features,” he said. 

Burnett usually takes his child to school from his home in East Oakland on his bike, which runs for 90 miles on a charge. He knows there is a desire for more e-bikes in the community. Besides the dozens of people he knows who have them, Burnett says a person in East Oakland is selling and repairing e-bikes out of their home.

“They will help connect people to parts of Oakland they can’t get to now. Seniors could have pedal-assisted bikes and families could take their kids to the park without competing with the sidewalks and pedestrian-crossing infrastructure,” he said.

Correction: we misspelled Edgar Arellano’s last name and regret the error.

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.