Why can't I rent a BIKETOWN bike when the battery is dead?

A few weeks ago I needed a ride home.

Taking pubic transit would have required a couple bus transfers (not to mention that I’ve had a few unpleasant interactions with vauled community members on there lately) so that wasn’t super appealing.

I checked Lyft prices and they’d surged into the stratosphere… something about Fleet Week or the Rose Festival or a Pedalpalooza-induced traffic jam for climate change awareness, probably. So that was a bust.

But I figured, “Hey, why not take a BIKEYTOWN bike home?” My destination was only about three miles away-- a little bit long for a walk but the perfect distance for a quick bike ride. I went back to the Lyft app and looked for nearby bikes. Success! There was a rental e-Bike within a half mile of me. It showed 0% charge but that didn’t seem important… it’s got pedals, right?

Well, no. It’s actually very important. You apparently cannot rent a BIKETOWN bike and use it as a bike. It must have battery assist, even if you don’t need it.

I ride steel touring bikes, I bikepack, I haul my big-boned frame all over town, and I’m pretty sure I could pedal a dead e-Bike a few miles without much fuss, even if it was 50+ pounds. And I especially could manage if it saved me from the $47 car ride that Lyft really wanted me to take (hmmmm). Hell, I might even plug it in for them at home, if I could. Just because I’m a nice guy.

But no, one cannot pedal a BIKETOWN without a battery. The future of cycling is here, and it requires a lithium mine in Oregon and bunch of outsourced pollution and underpaid labor in SE Asia. Just when you thought bicycles were the most efficient mode of transport known to humankind, PBOT partners with Lyft and says “Actually…”

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I really do miss the old school biketowns even with those dubious keypads. Minneapolis has both in their fleet and it’s a much better system for it.

I gather the reasoning they don’t let you do it is

  • lyft charges a premium rate for the e-assist part of the service, users would complain
  • the tech they use requires a minimum charge to operate
  • the bikes are super heavy and the average rider would not be comfortable pedaling one
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I rented one during the February 2021 snow and I guess the battery was a lot more dead than the app claimed. I wasn’t getting any electric assist that I could feel. It was the most miserable bit of bike riding I’ve done in recent history. I had to give up after a few minutes. Definitely more difficult than riding the old Biketown bikes, which I still wish were around. I can’t really say how it would be on snow-free ground but I did ride the old ones in the snow a couple times without much trouble. I wanted to see my actual speed and distance but it looks like new Biketown isn’t cool and doesn’t let you download your rides in GPX format like old Biketown.