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San Francisco Will Pioneer Electric Bike Sharing

With federal backing, the city is partnering with a local car share service to offer members access to electric bikes.

San Francisco is putting a new spin on car- and bike-sharing services. With federal backing, the city is partnering with a local car share service to offer members access to electric bikes, too. The program will launch this year with 45 bikes being integrated into the system, and an additional 45 will come into circulation in 2013, The New York Times reports.

Electric bikes are sneaking into the mainstream. Some replace pedal power with an electric motor; others still require pedaling but amplify a cyclist’s efforts. In New York City, restaurant employees use them to stretch delivery service into wider areas, even though they’re technically illegal in the state. Last year, a bike with an electric assist won the Oregon Manifest challenge, which asked bike designers to create a “utility bike” that could attract civilians to cycling.

That bike’s designer, Tony Pereira, told judges that his bike could replace a car. The San Francisco pilot program is asking more directly whether that’s true. Researchers at University of California-Berkeley will be studying the extent to which car share customers choose an electric bike over a car.

In theory, there should be a threshold at which a bike makes more sense than a car. The rider might rule out a regular bike because she needs to reach a destination quickly, or doesn’t want to arrive sweaty, or doesn’t want to face a particular hill. But she might not need the full power of a car to solve those problems. Since the pilot program will price the electric bike at half the rate of cars or even lower, car share members will have an added incentive to choose the e-bike — a vehicle that will have a smaller environmental impact.

An electric bike sharing program like this one taps into two transportation trends that have the potential to use less energy and decrease emissions. The first is a trend away from ownership: Millennials say they’re more interested in having access to a car than owning one. This makes particular sense for those living in cities: why take on the burdens of a car’s maintenance, safety, and storage when it sits idle most days? For those living in the densest cities, like New York, that logic starts applying to smaller vehicles, like bikes, as well.

The second trend involves tinkering with pricing to help people make rational transportation choices. Offering people the choice between a more expensive car and a cheaper e-bike rental falls into this category; so do other San Francisco initiatives like demand-based parking pricing. The Value Pricing Pilot Program, the federal transportation initiative that’s chipping in for the e-bike share, also supported the parking program, which raises the cost of parking where demand is high and lowers it where demand shrinks.

In both programs, pricing helps nudge consumers towards more efficient decisions. Perhaps drivers don’t need to park on the street they’ve always favored when another one is cheaper. Perhaps that trip to the grocery store doesn’t require a car. These are small decisions, but the more often consumers make smarter ones, the more emissions from transportation—one of the biggest contributors to climate change—will decrease.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Tyler Howarth

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