Red Bike hopes electric bicycles will bring pedal power to those who fear the city's hills

Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 24, 2018

CINCINNATI -- The Queen City's bike share program, Red Bike, has enjoyed steady success since its launch more than four years ago, with nearly 400,000 rides logged and counting.

Tom Crowder has counted for more than his share of them. He's up to nearly 200 rides this year alone and has ridden roughly 2,800 miles since Red Bike's launch in 2014.

"Since day one, I’ve been riding (Red Bike) for the last four years," he said. "I work Downtown. I take the Metro in every day. I have meetings all over the city, and this has been a huge lifesaver."

However, even an avid Red Bike user like Crowder knows there are parts of town that pose a big challenge to reach -- mostly due to the inclines in and out of many of the city's neighborhoods.

Tom Crowder rides Red Bike nearly every day. He said he's thrilled e-bikes will be mixed into Red Bike's rotation. (Michael Benedic/WCPO)

"It does limit you. Obviously, it’s a little difficult to ride up to UC. That’s quite a trip," he said. "You end up having to stop a couple times because your thighs are screaming. It’s not something I would do on a regular basis."

That's why even seasoned cyclists like Crowder, who works at Kroger headquarters on Central Parkway, are excited for Red Bike's next evolution: e-bikes.

E-bike is shorthand for electric-assist bicycle, a type of bike that utilizes a battery-powered motor to add force to the rider's pedaling power. Bike share manufacturer BCycle -- the Trek subsidiary that builds bicycles for Red Bike -- is rolling out a pilot program to test e-bikes in their market cities.

"You could shoot up to UC. You could shoot up to Mount Adams," Crowder said. "It really opens up a lot more of the city. It’s hard to do that on a regular Red Bike."

In November, Cincinnati will become one of the first six BCycle cities to test the e-bikes, along with Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; and Broward County, Florida, near Miami.

Cincinnati -- by far the hilliest of the pilot cities -- is a perfect place to test the e-bikes, Red Bike executive director Jason Barron said.

"Anybody who’s been in Cincinnati for any amount of time knows that we’ve got some hills," he said. "We’ve been embraced since the beginning, but there’s a whole lot of folks who still haven’t taken that ride or they’re not using it to the best of their ability.

"Hills here can sneak up on you. This is going to get more people on bikes, more people riding longer, riding farther and using bikes as a bigger part of their lives."

For Crowder, it's not just about hills, but covering more ground, too.

"I like to ride to Spring Grove Cemetery, and that kind of takes you almost the whole hour to do that and ride back," he said. "But on an e-bike, that would be so much easier."

Barron said he's so confident the e-bikes will be a game-changer that he already has ordered 100 more of the e-bikes to arrive by spring 2019. That makes Cincinnati the first of BCycle's 50 cities to make a major investment in electric-assist technology.

A $200,000 investment from the city, along with another $100,000 from the Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and $25,000 from the Duke Energy Foundation, will finance the new e-bikes, Barron said.

Further expansion in the future will come from a recently awarded $500,000 federal Transportation Alternatives grant.

Once the 100 e-bikes roll out, they will constitute more than 20 percent of Red Bike's fleet, Barron said.

The three-month pilot period will allow Barron and his team to measure how often the e-bikes are used as well as work out logistical details, such as how far the batteries will take a rider and how best to keep them charged.

The e-bikes fit into Red Bike's mission to not just provide an alternative to driving but also to get more people using bikes for transportation.

"Our mission is to get more people riding bikes. That’s been our mission from the beginning," Barron said.

Similarly, Red Bike launched earlier this year Red Bike Go -- an affordable membership option available to people earning less-than-average income or receiving some other sort of public assistance.

Barron said he hopes the e-bikes will hit Red Bike docking stations the first week of November.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.