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Lyft shocks with e-bike price hike, and Uber bikes leave town

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It’s a vicious cycle

A black bike with pink rims sitting next to a fence with bay waters in the background. Photo via Shutterstock

xIf you’re in the habit of riding the pedal-assisted e-bikes that have become ubiquitous across San Francisco in recent years—but not all of San Francisco, more on that in a minute—your commute will become more complicated soon, particularly if you happen to bike in some of SF’s outlying neighborhoods.

Starting in March, Lyft, which operates the black-and-pink Bay Wheels rentals throughout the city, will raise prices due to operational costs and introduce some slightly dizzying new schemes to things.

Via a Medium post, the company explained that it will start charging more because “e-bikes need charged batteries and can be parked at stations or public bike racks, they cost more to operate.”

Starting next month, renting a bike will cost $2 and then 20 cents per minute (not mile) to ride for non-members who purchase single trips. Users who purchase an annual or monthly pass—they start at $15 per month—will receive a discounted rate of 15 cents per minute and won’t have to pay the $2 fee.

This is quite a change from the old system, in which Bay Wheels members paid zero dollars per minute.

The company says “riders won’t pay per minute if an e-bike is the only option at a station.” Users in neighborhoods like the Outer Richmond, Bayview/Hunters Point, and the Excelsior will pay no more than $2 for a ride regardless of distance.

Also, there’s now a fee for parking the bikes at a regular bike rack instead of a Bay Wheels station (another $2), except again in the Outer Richmond, Excelsior, and Hunters Point (but not Bayview this time), but “we’ll waive this if the bike is parked near a station with no empty docks.”

A Lyft spokesperson tells Curbed that the $2 fee to lock to a bike rack is designed to encourage the use of stations and proper parking behavior while offsetting additional cost.

Did you get all that? All of the exceptions for southeastern neighborhoods reflect the comparably limited company resources out there.

The city is always pushing Lyft and similar tech companies to expand more services to places like Bayview. Research shows that tech-fueled innovations tend to pool in wealthier and whiter parts of town. In fact, cycling in general has a diversity problem in SF, with the census reporting that city cyclists are more likely to be wealthy (with salaries of $250,000 in many cases) white men. (SPUR director Allison Arieff argues that more protected bike lanes would help increase bike use in cities like SF, which, statistically, will mean more diverse ridership.)

The reaction to the price increase, which Lyft says was first announced in December when it bought e-bikes back to city streets, has been swift and terse.

“This pricing makes no sense! Why would you take away the unlimited option after getting users used to it for years?” says Sam Khandelwal on Lyft’s blog post. “I feel let down by Lyft and will most likely be canceling the membership and investing in an e-bike!”

And Erik Brown replies, “SF should tear up [Lyft’s] agreement and open the market to competition.”

Speaking of which, with the new changes happening at Lyft, what’s happening with the e-bike competition? Well, that’s the catch—there isn’t any competition.

As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, it is probably not a coincidence that these changes are happening at the same time that Uber will lose its license to rent bikes in the city altogether on March 1.

In hindsight, it’s surprising that the city relied so heavily on the same companies that it largely blames for generating auto woes in SF to be the key pillars of the e-bike revolution. At least there’s no changes to the price of renting ordinary non-electronic bikes, leaving the semi-luddites among us to pedal in peace—for now.

[Update: The city extended Uber’s permits for Jump bikes through March 25. The company is still negotiating a new long-term bike rental arrangement.]