PROVIDENCE — People in the city of Providence will once again be able to rent electric pedal-assisted bikes, almost two years after a promising but troubled predecessor was yanked off the streets.
Spin, a dockless scooter and bike rental company owned by Ford, rolled out its first 100 electric bikes in the city on Monday. They can be unlocked and rented with a smartphone app. The company has been in Providence with its scooters since 2019.
The so-called e-bikes help people with pedaling, which is especially useful if you’re traveling from Federal Hill to College Hill and back. They’re dockless, meaning they don’t have to be left in a particular place once the ride is over and instead can be locked to a street sign, parking meter or existing bike rack.
“Having the choice of an e-bike or an e-scooter gives riders the opportunity to pick a vehicle that best fits their journey while simultaneously improving transit efficiency in our city,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a news release Monday.
A predecessor called Jump, which launched in 2018, proved to be a popular option for people who wanted to get around the city without a car. According to the nonprofit Providence Streets Coalition, people in the city took nearly 300,000 rides in 11 months, traveling 579,221 miles and making Providence the highest usage city in the U.S. outside of California.
But some people complained when they were left on sidewalks, a particular concern for people who have mobility issues.
They also had a security flaw: With a few stiff blows from a heavy object, people could unlock the bikes and ride them for free. They’d lose out on the pedal-assist feature, but avoided payment.
The use of these “zombie” Jump bikes in crimes sparked concerns from the police and the community. Internal emails between the city and the company showed that Jump was surprised by the level of vandalism in Providence. One technician had a gun pulled on him. At least one bike ended up in a river. They were removed from the streets in August 2019, with a promise to re-evaluate and return.
They did not return.
Spin bikes will now take their place. On Monday, the company and the city showed off some of their features, including what the company says is a tamper-resistant design.
Liza Burkin, the organizer for the Providence Streets Coalition, said in an interview that she’s hopeful, given how popular e-bikes are, that things will be different this time. Spin, she said, has been more embedded in the community than its predecessor. The technology around proper parking of bikes and bike security has also improved, she said.
“This is a constantly evolving industry,” Burkin said. “We’re working our way toward these public, shared moblity systems that are only going to improve over time.”
A survey of Providence residents commissioned by the coalition found 70 percent wanted to bike more, up from 58 percent the last time a poll was conducted in 2019. Burkin said the No. 2 barrier to more biking is access to bikes and storage. This program will help. The No. 1 is safety, which will take broader investments, like protected bike lanes. Those plans are in the works in several Providence neighborhoods, with community meetings slated for later this week.
“The city is well on its way to building out our urban trail network,” Burkin said.
The company agreed with the city to have a discount program for people who are on certain forms of public assistance, as well as a way to rent them for people who don’t have bank accounts or mobile phones. People have to pay $1 to unlock them and an average of 29 cents a minute to ride them. The company is aiming to have 400 e-bikes available in Providence by September.
To end a ride, the user has to put the lock pin back into the bike. While that doesn’t necessarily stop people from leaving them in the wrong places, the company gives users ride credits if they lock them to existing bike racks. There are 40 hubs around the city where people can find a new ride or end their existing one.
A spokeswoman for the company noted that people who download the Spin app are given information on safe riding and correctly parking their e-scooter or e-bike, and that Spin has a team “dedicated to monitoring the location of our vehicles so we can quickly respond if an e-bike or e-scooter is incorrectly parked.”