Walker Angell writes for Streets.MN and shares a guest article today about a new bikeshare system in Birmingham.
I recently spent a few days in Birmingham, AL and got to try their new Zyp bikeshare system — the first public electric bikeshare system in the US. I’ve used bikeshare in a number of cities in the US and Europe and am a huge fan of both bikeshare and of e-bikes (electric bikes), so I was excited to try out Zyp. Unfortunately, this experience—both the bikes and the streets I traveled on—left a lot to be desired. That's unfortunate because Birmingham is a city that could really benefit from a good bike system.
The Bikes: What works and What doesn't
The Zyp system includes 400 bikes, of which 100 are e-bikes. The regular bikes were OK. The e-bikes were downright bad.
A good e-bike is smooth and adds a bit of assist to your pedaling. Not these. The Zyp e-bikes are fixed throttle, not e-assist. They are more of a single speed electric scooter, but with pedals for a throttle. When you begin to pedal the motor kicks in at its one single speed (approximately 15 MPH on flat ground).
Occasionally I would also find it rather difficult to pedal starting out, kind of like when you’re in a really high gear. The e-bikes that most prefer are those with a torque sensor that provides proportional e-assist. With this type of e-bike, the motor can provide 40% as much as the rider, 100% as above, 150%, 200%, etc. Given the hills in Birmingham, a 100% assist would likely be a good default
Besides being easier and more comfortable to ride and safer, torque sensors allow for much greater range on a charge, a faster recharge time, and the battery itself has a longer life. These would help with the issues that Birmingham is experiencing. The Zyp system uses solar panels to charge batteries in the station that then charge the bicycles. This is an environmentally-friendly system. However, the stations often run out of juice for charging the bikes so Zyp have to swap out the batteries for fully charged batteries.
Birmingham's new e-bikeshare system could be a model for other hilly cities like St. Paul, MN and San Francisco, CA, but they'll need to work out the kinks first.
On the Streets of Birmingham
Birmingham is a great city in many ways, and it’s become a foodie heaven. Unfortunately, Birmingham also ranks as one of the worst and least safe cities for people to walk or ride a bicycle.
While biking in Birmingham, I found many drivers considerate, though many others were not. Overall I think this was the least safe I’ve ever felt riding around any city and I ride around quite a few every year.
My worst experience was a Birmingham Trolley that passed inches away from me. If I’d leaned over a bit or lost my balance for a second, I’d have been another statistic. You’d think that a promotional vehicle wouldn’t try to scare visitors away from the city.
I’ve been told by several people that there are a lot of plans to educate drivers in Birmingham. I’m highly skeptical. That didn’t work in the Netherlands, Denmark, or elsewhere. What others have consistently learned is that nothing enforces or educates better than cement — cement curbs and other elements creating protected bikeways and walkways and causing drivers to pay attention.
Alabama: #2 in Obesity, #4 in Poverty and #1 in Being Bicycle Unfriendly.
The state of Alabama has several challenges that could be addressed through greater opportunity for biking.
First, Alabama has the second highest rate of obesity in the U.S. with 36% of it’s population being obese and another solid portion overweight. 13.5% of Alabama adults have diabetes. Obesity-related diseases and healthcare costs are a major draw on Alabama's resources (both public and private). It’s much more cost effective to prevent the negative health impacts of obesity than to treat them. If active transportation options like biking were safer and more available to Alabama residents, they could get healthier in the process and lower healthcare costs throughout the state.
In addition to having high rates of obesity, Alabama also has high rates of poverty. The state is the fourth poorest in the nation with nearly 1/5 of Alabamans living below the poverty line. Transportation expenses can be a huge burden on the poor, especially car ownership. Bicycles are a much more affordable alternative. Safe bicycling can help people maintain a job, get healthier food, and get to medical appointments. In some cases bicycles can help people get off of welfare and can lower the costs of welfare.
Unfortunately, in 2015 Alabama was ranked last in bicycle friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists.
This state stands to benefit tremendously from a greater investment in safe biking infrastructure. Designing for all transportation modes instead of just cars will result in many fewer crashes and deaths. Better road design will also result in more people riding bicycles instead of driving which will improve their health and save them money. Roads will need less maintenance and less law enforcement. And all of these improvement also mean cost savings for individuals and for the city as a whole.
In Birmingham’s Defense
Birmingham is a small city and they took a leap by implementing the first e-bikeshare system in the U.S. They and their key partners, Regions Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama and Alabama Power get a lot of kudos for that.
From my conversations with Zyp, it sounds like they are working hard to improve things, both with their bikeshare system and with Birmingham’s lack of infrastructure and dangerous streets. Zyp said that they’ve received very encouraging feedback from users of the system and a lot of people asking for more e-bikes (understandable given their hilly geography). This winter they are converting 30 of their regular bikes to e-bikes and are updating all of the e-bikes to accelerate more gradually.
Despite the concerns I raised, Birmingham is a much better place today than it was a year ago and I expect it will be even better next year. Hopefully the bugs can get worked out, Birmingham can build a lot of safe bikeways and walkways, and this city can become a great and enjoyable place.
This will be key to Birmingham’s future and to keeping and attracting workers as increasing numbers of people prefer to live where they can safely walk and bicycle for much of their local transportation.