When I moved from Taipei to Los Angeles at the age of 11, I had already heard much about “America” and how it’s the best country in the world. My dad and I got off the airplane, got in a car, and went on the 405. I saw the vast freeway traversing through bald, brown hills, and thought to myself, “that’s weird.” In Taiwan, even when you see mountains and hills (always green, not brown), you also see very dense buildups of tall apartments and business buildings. We got to our exit, I saw big, single-family homes with yards, and I turned to my dad and asked, “I thought we were going to America, what are we doing in the countryside?”
For all the things this country offers its citizens, one thing it does not offer (outside of Manhattan) is a functioning public transportation infrastructure and it’s a distinct disadvantage. My siblings in Los Angeles endure three-hour commutes on a daily basis. You can imagine my excitement when UberX and UberPool became mainstream. I moved up from Palo Alto to San Francisco in 2015 and I didn’t think twice about selling my car. Even then, I was often stuck in traffic, and riding a regular road bike in the city is a dangerous and costly endeavor.
Recently, JUMP bikes started appearing everywhere in the city. I was already interested in the company because they put their first few bikes where I live in Bayview and they tested first with people who worked in non-profits. Bayview is a less affluent neighborhood typically ignored by startups and the SFMTA. Before introducing dynamic pricing, Lyft and Uber restricted discounts to only north of Cesar Chavez. On-demand delivery services like Postmates and Doordash also didn’t service beyond Cesar Chavez from the get-go. JUMP was different and refreshing. In addition to JUMP, LimeBike, Bird and SPIN have all been deploying their fleet of electric scooters all over the city. When the MUNI failed me again this past Saturday, I decided to give them all a try. Here’s my experience.
LimeBike E-Scooters (Lime-S)
Distance: 1.4 miles
Time: 10 minutes
Cost: $2.50 – $1 discount = $1.50
It’s rather odd to just see these things smack in the middle of a sidewalk because I’m not used to them yet and they look expensive. The green and white color make them look very friendly. I unlocked one by scanning a QR code and waiting for about 10 seconds. The scooter was heavier than I expected. The instructions said to kick a little and then press down the motor button, which I did and the scooter started flying. I went from Costco on 10th and Harrison to Westfield on 5th and Market mostly taking the bike lane going at about 11 MPH (it’s got a display for showing the speed). The scooter was small enough that I could easily weave through pedestrians on the sidewalk when I had to, which I wasn’t sure if it was legal. You can feel all the bumps on the terrible San Francisco roads while riding these, even in bike lanes, which I guess are more about safety than smooth, evenly paved roads. All-in, I loved the experience and I was surprised that it went up some modest hills. Definitely beats walking and waiting for the bus.
These cost $1 to unlock and then charges by the minute.
Distance: 2.8 miles
Time: 25 minutes
Cost: $3.75 cost of ride + $1.00 base cost – $1.00 discount = $3.75
Next I picked up a much sleeker looking SPIN e-scooter on 5th and Market. Again, it was just chilling there on the sidewalk with pedestrians walking by. I tried to unlock it but was unsuccessful at first. The app made me wait 30 seconds to try again. Once unlocked, I gave the motor a pump, and I started flying even more than the Lime-S. The SPIN e-scooter felt lighter and more stable than the Lime-S, and the motor felt more powerful or maybe the battery simply had more charge. I weaved through cars on the bike lane up Market Street, feeling more exposed than I typically feel on a regular bike, and slightly concerned about the handling since scooters are less maneuverable than bikes. I shot all the way up to the Ferry Building and then up towards Fisherman’s Wharf, passing hordes of tourists biking along the Embarcadero. Just like with the Lime-S, I kicked only to get it rolling and build speed, and otherwise primarily relied on the motor. I wanted to see if this scooter could go uphill, and turned towards North Beach to find a steep hill. The SPIN e-scooter gave out immediately once I started up the hill completely ran out of power after a 25-minute ride.
SPIN does a good job breaking down the fare on the receipt into base cost and the cost of ride by time. SPIN charges the same rate as Lime-S and Bird, and I probably rode it for the longest. A 25-minute trip covering 3 miles would’ve cost $4.75 without discount. That’s getting to feel a little bit steep.
Distance: 1.2 miles
Time: 7 minutes
The Bird e-scooters look very much like the SPIN e-scooters and the motor is just as powerful. Are they made by the same manufacturers? I didn’t have a chance to take a SPIN scooter on really bumpy roads so I rode the Bird on the same bumpy bike lanes I went on with the Lime-S. The Bird was definitely a smoother ride compared to the Lime-S, probably because the tires on these are wider than the ones on a Lime-S. However, the larger tires also make it harder to kickstart and build speed. A more powerful motor compensates for that.
One thing that Bird does differently is that if it’s your first time unlocking a Bird, they’ll require you to scan your driver’s license. The on-boarding is also more involved and really emphasizes the fact that a helmet is required. Bird’s receipt only shows the total fare without a breakdown. Upon further research, it charges the same as everyone else. $1 to unlock and charges by the minute.
Distance: 6.35 miles
Time: 35:02 minutes
JUMP offers electric bikes, not scooters, and it’s a completely different beast. This. Beast. FLIES. And I love it!
Don’t get duped by the look. They look bulky and ride like beach cruisers — cushy seats and comfortable handle bars with you sitting upright. As soon as you push down on the pedal, you feel the bike start to fly. In five days, I’ve rented a JUMP about ten different times in all kinds of neighborhoods, day and night, even in the rain. JUMP bikes performed perfectly in all conditions and made San Francisco feel a lot smaller.
I’ve taken a JUMP bike to fly up the steepest hills that I normally would simply opt to push my bike up or go around. I’ve taken JUMP to parts of Mission Bay, Dogpatch and Bayview near the Warriors construction sites with really, really bad roads that have ruined my own bike multiple times. The heavy base and wide, durable tires — all the things that made the Ford GoBikes terrible — add electric assist and boom, it’s the perfect vehicle for San Francisco. If you’ve ever cycled around San Francisco, you know you are always watching out for uneven roads, potholes, debris, hills, train tracks, angry drivers, and basically fearing for your safety. With JUMP, you are thinking way less about all of that stuff and you feel way safer. Electric assist on a bike also makes you less likely to run a yellow light because stopping and starting is not really a big deal anymore.
There’s a little bit of a learning curve to learn how to unlock a JUMP bike. You can either reserve it from your phone to prevent a bike from getting taken by someone else, or you can simply walk up to a bike and punch in your account number and your PIN. All the bikes come with a giant U-lock that is large enough for even the thick parking meters, but I believe you’re supposed to park them only at bike parking. I believe this is the best option for San Francisco, and the price is more reasonable for the distance it can cover. JUMP can easily beat buses and sometimes cars if there’s some traffic.
The problems with sharing e-bikes and e-scooters
Phantom bikes / scooters and sketchy people
Just in my limited run over the last five days, I’ve already had four instances where I walked to a scooter or a bike and I just can’t seem to locate them anywhere. That’s bad if I really had somewhere to get to. Here’s a map of my GPS dot looking for a LimeBike.
Having ridden a JUMP bike all the way to where I live in Bayview, I can see why people might want to bring the bikes into their garage or apartment building so they can have easy access to them again the next day. It’s a lot of effort to find one, especially in a neighborhood like Bayview.
Another time I was looking for a scooter in one of the sketchier parts of SOMA, and found a Bird at a park next to a group of homeless guys. I approached the guy next to the Bird to ask if he was using it, and he told me he was even though the app clearly showed that the scooter was available. I had to go three more blocks for the next scooter.
Most of the bikes and scooters I’ve tried so far are relatively new and robust, but the first thing I do when I get on one is to test the brakes. I remember there were safety concerns when Uber first came out, but I was always comfortable because of male privilege knowing that the drivers and I shared the desire to stay relatively safe. The shared bikes and scooters, however, are just sitting out there on the streets, being used by all kinds of people. I have to have a lot of confidence, especially for something like JUMP that is probably going 30 MPH. The scooters can also get up to 15 MPH, which is when it starts to feel a little unstable and unsafe.
In one instance with a Bird scooter, I pressed down on the motor and it was sticky and wouldn’t come back up immediately so I had to brake hard and get a feel for it before I was comfortable to continue riding. Can these companies quickly identify broken bikes and scooters and get them serviced before anyone gets hurt?
Re-balancing and Charging
I’ve seen the Ford GoBike workers re-balance bikes and their problem is a lot simpler since they probably only have 20–30 docks around the city. I saw a JUMP bike worker the other day putting down bikes in front of NEMA, and I was just thinking about the complexity of his problem. These bikes can be anywhere! I live near the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve seen a JUMP bike or two parked there. I imagine there’s probably some poor worker picking up that bike and bringing it back to somewhere more popular like the Caltrain, only to have some dude take it back to the Produce Market and leaving it there for days. The density of available scooters and bikes definitely influences how much I ride them. Here are the receipts for the 4 services from the last week. I see way more JUMP Bikes and Birds so I used them more.
Charging is another massive problem. The JUMP bikes are great because they have solar charging, but people often leave the JUMP bikes in shaded areas that may not get enough light exposure. The scooters are way worse because I think the batteries can probably only support 3–4 hours of ride time on a full charge. SPIN’s response to this is to create the PIN Protocol and incentivize everyone to help out. LimeBike also recently announced that they plan to pay people to charge their scooters. Bird also just started recruiting “Chargers” through their app. I’ve noticed that the scooters are pretty well charged during the day but not so much in the evening.
Helmets and Safety
All of the apps told me that I should wear a helmet, but I never have my helmet with me. Looking around, almost everyone I see on a shared scooter or bike is not wearing a helmet. Given that these are motorized vehicles, a helmet is probably a must, especially in SF with terrible streets and terrible drivers. When I was on my JUMP bike, I felt safe because it was heavy and the tires were wide, but I was going way faster than I normally would or could, so the feeling of safety was likely delusional. Scooters are smaller and much harder to control. Instead of the basket in front of the bike, I think JUMP should simply make that helmet storage, like how Scoot Networks gives you a helmet for their scooters to promote safe riding. I’m not sure what the scooter companies can do about this problem.
I walked up to a JUMP bike in Chinatown and I saw this message in the basket. As I was unlocking it, a guy came over to scold me for parking my bike there. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him, “This isn’t my bike!” Or is it? The app unlocked the bike and I hopped on. I guess IT IS my bike now? Or maybe this guy thinks I’m stealing it. I was two blocks away from the gentlemen by the time I worked all this out…
There isn’t that much bike parking in SF to begin with. Even when I ride my own bike, I’d often lock it to a parking meter or to another type of fixture. As these bikes and scooters begin to proliferate, they’re definitely going to make our sidewalks look really weird. I’m not sure why the Chinatown neighbors were so bothered by the bike since it was locked to a street cleaning sign, I suspect it’s probably because it’s bad business since it was in front of a traditional market. Of course, there are probably a thousand other reasons why neighbors would complain about these bikes. However, if really limit the number of bikes and scooters or restrict them to certain areas, I don’t think they’d succeed. We need the density, otherwise it’s just another Zipcar and Scoot, and probably barely better than the MUNI.
The future of mobility looks bright, like these headlights on a JUMP Bike!
Despite the problems, the experiences so far have given me a lot of hope. For the first time, I don’t feel so far behind the Asian metropolitan cities with their convenient transportation options. All of the bikes and scooters are well made and you can feel the quality. The JUMP bikes and Lime-S have lights in the front and back that automatically turn on at night. The basket in front of the JUMP bike is robust and there’s even a cupholder inside (although you need a spill stick if you’re going to put your coffee in there). The solar charging capability and the display panel in the back of JUMP bikes are great. You don’t even need to use your phone to unlock a JUMP bike if you remember your account number and PIN to enter straight into the panel.
I’ve also been using the scooters or the MUNI to get to a JUMP bike for longer distance commutes, bridging the “last mile” gap and actually making public transportation worthwhile. When all of these options work together and begin to create enough density of options, San Francisco will start to feel more like Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, and New York.
I’m excited by the future of these shared transportation options. Africa skipped over desktops and laptops straight over to mobile. China skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile pay. America chose cars and highways instead of public transport, could we turn that disadvantage into a win by leapfrogging to shared, motorized personal transport? I don’t know but I certainly hope so!