Surprise! UT First To Electrify Bike Sharing in the U.S.

The obvious goodness of pairing pedal assist electric bikes with a bike sharing infrastructure is one of these great ideas whose time has come. In Tokyo, Sanyo recently installed 100 of their eneloop battery powered e-bikes at a "community" bike share divided between three Setagaya train stations and powered 100% (battery charging and LED station lighting) with solar photovoltaics. Here in the U.S., a more modest but still innovative electric bike share program is planned for debut late this summer, from the University of Tennessee (UT).

Girl puts bananas into her electric bike pannier

Photo showing the Trekking bike credit Currie Technologies.

Developed by Chris Cherry in partnership with Currie Technologies, the UT program plans to be fully operational at the start of the fall term, and will consist of 15 ebikes, modeled on Curries' Trekking bike, as well as 6 nonelectric bikes, and 2 bike depots.

That start date five months in the future could still give an upstart electric bike share time to sneak in and claim the mantel of "first U.S. electric bike share." But IntraGo, which got a lot of coverage back in late 2007 by being pegged as the partner for an elecric bike share for the University of Washington, told TreeHugger it has nothing to announce right now - the UW project suffered the same setback the rest of the company did due to the financial meltdown of 2008.

Meanwhile Cherry, a transportation engineer, has studied the explosion of ebikes in China extensively, and said he thinks the UT is actually the perfect place to try out an electric bike sharing program.

"Here at UT we've got a very nice campus that also has quite a few hills. By using electric bikes we get to take quite a bit of sweat out of the equation of biking between classes."

There isn't exactly a traffic problem on campus, Cherry added. In fact, the UT has a stadium that holds 100,000 visitors and an infrastructure to support that influx of people (and their cars) a few times a year. It is nothing if not car friendly - a semester's parking pass costs just $25, Curry said. But he added that the UT student body two years ago voted in a self-imposed "sustainability fee" to further eco-initiatives on campus, and bike sharing is a known and discussed issue in upcoming student elections. The University's climate action road map specifies a 25% decrease in CO2 emissions from campus transportation activities. That's hard to achieve in a business as usual atmosphere, Cherry said, and makes bike sharing a smart strategic move.

Because of a fairly small budget for the program, Cherry and his partner have had to be inventive and even playful in figuring out how to clear technical hurdles. They are building their own depots from scratch. Because Currie was willing to put together a unique design combining the company's Trekking bike - in which the battery is built in to the frame tube - with the company's Via Rapido design - in which a battery pack hangs off the back rack - they have created a sturdy but also longer-range ebike.

Students can plug an adapter directly in to the frame to recharge at a depot, or they can pick up a fully charged battery at a series of "battery vending machines" being planned for the campus.

"Incorporating the battery into the frame keeps the center of gravity low and improves the handling," said Curries' Larry Pizzi. On the other hand, the ability to add in the extra charged battery pack makes the system more flexible and will lower "range anxiety" for student users.

Cherry said there are sure to be kinks discovered during the pilot phase. For one, so far the system will be free for pilot bike users. But both Cherry and Pizzi agree that a service that isn't paid for tends to be open to abuse, and they are keen to find the sweet spot between providing a system that feels more affordable and more convenient than a car, but that won't succumb to the vandalism that plagued bigger systems such as VĂ©lib.

Cherry and Currie said they hope to commercialize the best elements of the system.

"We want to come up with a commercial product that could integrate into an existing bike share, as well as a standalone system. I want to find and overcome the barriers, devise a marketable product and spread throughout the country and the world," said Cherry.

Read more about bike sharing at TreeHugger:
Read more about bike sharing at TreeHugger:
Bike Share Programs Becoming Increasingly Popular at College Campuses
Cykel: A Plug-in Electric Bike Sharing Concept
Bike Sharing, the Next Generation: It Floats, It Flashes, It Practically Follows You

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