Madison BCycle E-Bike – First Impressions

With fanfare, food and fun, MADISON BCycle, in cooperation with the City and Trek Bicycles, rolled out a brand-new fleet of about 300 electric-assist rental bikes on June 18. With this milestone, Madison became the first city in the U.S. to convert to a fully electric bike share system.

Billed by MADISON BCycle as “...taking you farther, faster,” the upgraded e-fleet is now operational. As someone who participated in the roll-out (and full disclosure, I received a free helmet and pizza as a bonus), it was exciting to be part of the ride around Capitol Square and initial delivery to the bike stations. Since then, I have had a chance to give the bikes and the system more of a work-out. Here are my impressions after a few days, more than 20 miles, and about half-a dozen rides.

Why You Should Trust Me

I have owned three different types of E-bikes over 10 years. In addition, I ride a regular road bike about a thousand miles annually. I was a light user of the old MADISON BCycle system. However, people of different sizes and expectations might feel differently about their own riding experience so don’t hesitate to climb aboard and discover for yourself what you like and don’t like about the new system.

Rental and Membership Costs

While a single use bike pass can be expensive, $5 for 30 minutes (more than a bus ride!), MADISON BCycle offers a $20 monthly pass and a $100 annual pass, both offering unlimited 60-minute rides. If you are part of the University or select other organizations, annual passes are as low as $30.

Finding an E-Bike

The new E-bike system is based entirely on the old system. If you were familiar with the old system everything remains in place. But these are not the same bikes. They can go further and faster and thus, ideally, the new system would be more spread out. While the Campus and the Isthmus are well covered, gaps that existed outside the core are even more obvious now that increased range and higher speeds make more extensive geographic coverage desirable.

It’s best to view the system as a work in progress. Hopefully, induced demand initiated by the new bikes will promote the establishment of more strategically located stations (park-and-ride anyone?) in more parts of the City and County. More and more people are going to find out that an eight-mile E-bike is a no-sweat pleasure and will wonder why so few stations and rentals are available to and from where they live, work and want to go. If these bikes prove popular, and I expect they will, adequate availability at peak times will be a challenge to initially achieve. Also, E-Bikes can currently be rented only by adults with a credit card. The lack of access for youth remains an issue. I also expect the bikes to go into hibernation in the fall.

Unlocking a Bike

Although payment and unlocking can be done via each station’s kiosk, the preferred method for pass members is the BCycle card, or even better, the BCycle app. The app is super easy to use, tells you where the stations and bikes are and unlocks your choice of bikes within a couple of seconds of your selection.

I did experience one glitch at Memorial Union, whereby one remaining E-bike wouldn’t release from the dock. A call to the help line (answered by a live person!) verified the glitch but could not successfully be unlocked. Hopefully this is an infrequent occurrence because it was frustrating to know a bike in good working order was there in front of me but unavailable. Fortunately, an alternative station a couple of blocks away, had several bikes. I also found the app would not display GPS routes of previous trips listed in the My Trips section. It is not a necessity to have trip history but for some it’s a nice perk. I assume that functionality will be fixed before long.

Another issue if you use the kiosk LCD screens to purchase a pass is the poor quality of the screens on at least some of the stations. They have not aged well and have become opaque. In bright sunlight they can be quite hard to read. It may be as simple a fix as changing covers, I am not sure, but it’s disappointing the rollout of the spanking new E-bikes was not accompanied by better maintenance of the old docking stations. Clearly, the app is the way to go. It makes finding and checking out a bike a snap. But for curious new users the kiosk display issues are a barrier.

[Madison BCycle sent the following note: "We are in the process of replacing the kiosk LCD screens and will be working on that this week. Unfortunately, all were not replaced by the launch."]

Speaking of old docking stations, the bikes are not currently charged while at the docking stations. I was told by BCycle support they can tell when a docked bike is out of power and dispatch a service visit to swap in a fresh battery, but I do not believe they know when a battery is merely low. Clearly, there are station costs and bike design issues preventing charging while docked. But the tradeoff is that bikes are often at partial charge levels and may need persistent attention if they are heavily used.

This brings up the range and assist level issues. The actual range of a fully charged E-bike depends on many factors such as battery size and age, ambient temperatures, terrain, weight of the rider, bike and cargo, speeds, and the level of electric assist (you have to pedal to get the assist in this so called “pedelec” system, there is no throttle). The system in use in Madison sets a fixed assist level at the highest level, called Turbo; maxing out at 17 MPH while most Bosch control systems I have used offer four modes of increasing assist levels. The system choice to fix the assist at the highest level offers the easiest and perhaps the simplest riding experience, but not the most flexible nor the most efficient as mileage per charge decreases greatly at the higher assist setting. The result is that all the bikes in the system will have less range and will need charging/battery swapping more often than bikes allowing user selection of assist level.

It also means that people who might like to get the greater exercise benefit from moderately lower assist levels are unable to do so unless they power off completely (which remains an option). Personally, I think users would be capable of quickly figuring out how best to use variable assist for different situations and I am disappointed at this “dumbing down”. Some inexperienced users, for example, may find the Turbo mode too powerful at lower gears and prefer a more gradual introduction. Experienced users might choose a lower assist level to extend range on a partially charged battery or to more easily stay even with a slower non-E-bike user. The point is choice and control have been taken away for the sake of ease of use with little evidence that people won’t quickly figure out the benefits of variable assist levels, if it were available.

Bike Design and Fit

These bikes are “one size fits all” and so they must accommodate people of all shapes and sizes. This presents design challenges and invariably some compromises. In general, I think the designers have done a very good job as they reportedly can fit riders from 5’ to 6’ 5”. The bikes are easy to mount and dismount. The seat posts have a great range of travel and are easily adjustable and lockable.

However, as a 5’10” male, I experienced two nagging issues that I think might be problems for many others as well. The first of these is the kickstand placement. For my US size 10 shoes (average for men), I found the clearance from my heel to the kickstand mount to be inadequate. Comfortable placement on the pedal would often result in my heel striking the kickstand mount with each pedal revolution. For those with even bigger feet this could be problematic.

The second nagging comfort issue was the rotational bell control on the left side of the handlebar. Close inspection reveals the bell control is slightly different in shape and materials than the shift control on the right as the former causes the thumb and pointer finger to rest heavily against a hard-plastic ring on the bell control. The gear shift rotator, on the right side of the handlebar, is flatter and softer and feels more comfortable when grasping and riding. Depending on hand size and how you grip the handle, your experience may vary.




The bikes are step through style and other than the new powered capability, look and ride like the old “red” bikes. In fact, since they weigh about the same as the old bikes, it is possible to leave the assist off and ride for shorter distances if one is so inclined (or you run out of battery charge!). The power assist works only when you pedal and below 18 MPH – no throttle here. Range will vary, but on a full charge 30 miles is about average and in line with my experience with other Bosch systems.





Power ON!

Powering up the bike requires one button push, marked with a sticker. The symbol on the sticker is somewhat confusing. Not a major issue, I just thought the main power button could have been colored red as the stickers can easily come off as they age.

I recommend users power up the bike they want before making your bike selection from the dock in order to see whether the battery status is adequate for the trip you have in mind. It is possible that a previously used bike could be down to 10-20% charge or less and thus unsuitable for an 8-mile ride. Unless you plan on finishing your ride on muscle power!

Getting Underway

There are three gears, 1-3. I found they selected easily and engaged quickly. Gearing up to speed occurs rapidly with the assist on level ground. A few seconds in each of the lower gears and I found myself cruising in third at about 15 MPH. An internal geared hub design and protected chain mean the likelihood of having to deal with a dirty chain or cranky derailleur is non-existent. Feel free to ride in your Sunday finest.

The bikes handled well. I felt in full control and was glad I had the dual roller brake system on a downhill 30 MPH test road run. At normal speeds, the feel was subjectively better than the old red bikes. There is no dedicated suspension dampening, but the bike itself seems well built for the paved and occasional light potholes and cracks in the commuter biking environment.

Safety

The built-in bell is a nice touch to make sure bikes and pedestrians know you are there. At “Turbo” assist level on even ground, I think people will be pedaling these bikes at around 12-15 MPH. Most road bikers can easily exceed this speed, but your average recreational cyclist will probably be moving a little slower, at around 8-12 MPH. So non-E-bike users should expect more people riding these bikes with them at these higher, but not unprecedented speeds. E-bike users should be courteous as you safely pass and control speeds to conditions and other users in their riding environment.

I won’t dwell much on the helmet issue. I understand clearly that bike share systems don’t work well when helmets are mandated. The benefits of increased riding and travel speeds of E-bikes must be balanced against injury risk. But I also understand that as a matter of biomechanics, with higher speeds, head injury risks will go up if you do crash. We accept other higher risks than that of biking short distances without a helmet in many other recreational and transport activities. At any rate, in Wisconsin it’s a personal choice. I prefer the added protection as often as possible. If you feel the same, remember to bring your own helmet with you. They are not available at the docking stations.

One important safety item that I felt was missing was a rear-view mirror. Experienced cyclists use them judiciously to locate oneself in the traffic stream and I was rather uncomfortable without one (where exactly is that bus behind me?!). Would less experienced riders use them and find them helpful? I suspect so and would like to see at least one mirror mounted on the left side (handlebar?) despite the design and maintenance challenges.

Final Thoughts

I am pleased Madison has made the leap to an all E-bike system. They are going to get used more by more people and will show many the inherent benefits of an E-bike sharing system. However, one of the biggest external drawbacks that does not change with the introduction of E-bikes is that the bikes are still ridden on Madison’s partial network of mixed used streets that contain minimal low-stress road links (i.e., few protected lanes). As nice a step up as the new E-bikes are, riders still must put up with sharing many routes with cars, trucks and buses. E-bikes alone will do very little to encourage many of the interested but concerned potential bike riders to now venture out on the roads. Yet, as the numbers of people using alternative mobility devices (including E-bikes, scooters, skates, wheelchairs, skateboards and other mobility devices of all types) continue to skyrocket, they will all be demanding safer routes. Madison, a leader in bike sharing and urban trails, is falling behind in responding to the numbers, safety and environmental justifications for more protected mobility lanes. Addressing this gap needs to be a priority for the City to ensure long-term success for its proud new E-bike sharing system.

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