One day there were a thousand red Jump bikes scattered across Providence. Then suddenly, on August 22, they had vanished! We are left with questions and rider regret. Why have these bikes come and gone so soon? When will they return, and what will be different when they do? What place or space did this e-bike rental program serve in this city?
As an enthusiast for the joy of cycling, seeing the flow of bright red Jump bikes streaming along the East Bay Bikeway on sunny weekends is heartening. The cost for these joy rides is not cheap at $3 for the first 20 minutes, then 15 cents per minute after that. For a three-hour trek this would add up to $27. One assumes the riders can afford the luxury, or at least their parents can if they are college students enabled with a credit card. The related assumption is that renting a bike for brief periods of riding is more convenient than owning. The estimated price that Uber, the company that manages the program, pays to buy the red Jump bikes is around $1k.
The capacity of the standard Jump bike is the other attraction that makes it worth riding, with battery assistance empowering even an unconditioned rider to traverse proud distances, climbing hills with ease and pedaling mostly on level stretches of paved pathway. Real cyclists may scoff at the pedal cheaters, but there is a gain in getting more people back on bikes – even for brief treks.
Sarah Mitchell, board chair of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, sees bicycling as a primary mode of transportation. “For many Rhode Island residents, including myself, their bike is their car. They don’t drive, many of them can’t afford a car. They do everything by bike year-round – even in the snow and rain. We discovered, when we surveyed people for the Rhode Island State Bike Mobility Plan, 1/3 of Rhode Island residents are ‘curious but concerned’ about using a bike for transportation. These are the people who would bike if we build separated, protected bike lanes. Bike share gives access to the mode, and separated, protected bike lanes encourage people to ride.”
Bikes are not intended to replace gas powered motorized vehicles, yet they are a portion of the Providence City Hall’s transportation vision. Ben Smith, Communications Director for the city’s planning department, describes the vision as follows: “Our bike share system is just one of the ways that we are working to provide residents and visitors with new ways to get around Providence without use of a car, which contributes to our goal of making Providence a more affordable, healthy, and sustainable city.”
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According to People for Bikes, some of the most bike friendly cities in the United States include Boulder Colorado, Manhattan New York, and Arlington Virginia. Walkscore.com ranks Minneapolis Minnesota, Portland Oregon and Denver Colorado as top bike friendly places to pedal. The ratings include factors such as designated bike lanes, off-road trails, and biker safety.
Some unintended challenges since the launch of the Jump bike program in Providence include herding Jump riders towards routes and rules of riding that do not defy the city ordinances or state laws. Section 15-75 of Providence code requires that bike rentals for ages under 16 must be approved in writing by either a parent or guardian. But for Jump bikes that have been hacked (i.e. the lock disabled) this does not work. Section 15-70 requires that no person using any bicycle shall ride at a speed faster than a “common traveling pace” in any portion of the city. This language seems open to interpretation depending on who is doing the traveling.
Regarding where it is legal to ride, skateboards cannot be used on any street, highway, sidewalk or pedestrian mall (section 23-31), but there is no similar restriction on bicycles. Chapter 31-19 of Rhode Island general law allows bicycles to ride on sidewalks and in streets unless local signs prohibit. Bike riders must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians on a sidewalk and give an audible signal before passing (31-19-11 and 12). Helmets are required for riders 15 and younger (31-19-2.1).
The other red bike flags that have unfurled is the unauthorized use of these e-rides by hackers, and the mistreatment and damage to these expensive electric spin machines. The cost to repair or replace stolen and damaged bikes can be a significant business threat for the corporate owner. Damage control can reach a level that endangers the entire program.
Uber is running this program in several other major cities and thus has become familiar with the hacking and trashing problem. With over 1,000 Jump bikes in Providence, Uber had a substantial mobile investment to manage. An identified Uber contact did not respond with their preferred solution. In an article in the Providence Journal, the blame for hacked and unauthorized use of Jump bikes was directed towards corporate owner Uber. But the case can be made that theft of property is a criminal matter that local law enforcement has a responsibility to investigate and enforce.
Ben Smith, from city Planning assured that, “The City is working closely with Public Safety and JUMP to ensure that users are practicing safe and responsible ridership with regards to the JUMP bikes. Given the unique needs and goal of the city to provide accessible, equitable transportation options, this system was a priority and has been successful to date. We continue to work closely with JUMP representatives to ensure that these services remain accessible to all residents and are encouraged that they recently worked with city officials and community members to adjust their new pricing structures to meet our constituents’ needs.”
Questions remain to be addressed. How will Providence evaluate the program’s success? Will Uber continue to operate in the creative capital, or are the losses to unauthorized riders and bike destruction costs a tipping point in the sustainability of the business model? Did the ease of illegal access to these bikes by young rolling raiders create a safety burden greater than the benefit of the Jump program for renters who follow rules? When and if the bikes come back, the program will have to operate with greater restricted control over access. Leaving these bright red beautiful bikes out overnight all over the city proved to be too much temptation for those with the will and the weakness to become bike pirates.
Safety for bike users is another concern. Can shared-bike users be educated to follow the rules of the road? Can vehicle drivers increase their respect for cyclists when sharing the road? Can Providence and other places in RI become as bike friendly as the best cities across the United States?
Sarah Mitchell of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition expressed cautious optimism. “Providence plans to implement the Great Streets Initiative as soon as the plan is released. This gives me hope for the City of Providence and I am very excited to see them start building the Urban Trail network.
“At the state level, though, our leadership is busy widening 95 & 195 at great expense while also cutting what little funding exists for biking and walking in our state. We need to invest in biking, walking, & transit and stop forcing our citizens to use cars. More choices will lead to a better quality of life for everyone.”
My own preference and privilege is to enjoy recreational cycling – to ride a bike with the old pure pedal and push (up steep hills) approach, and to stay on designated trails away from the hassle of traffic. But the Jump bike effort is noble, well intended, and a privilege that could add to the matrix of curious and willing riders and the spokes people who swear by the power and pleasure of pedaling the city and the region’s scenic trails.