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How Pittsburgh Wins At Transit: Make All Modes Work Together

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Healthy Ride has expanded from 50 stations to 115, and will soon add electric-assist bikes to its fleet.

The City of Pittsburgh lags behind other cities in testing micro-mobility options such as stand-on electric scooters. However, a blockbuster year for bikeshare program Healthy Ride shows a growing demand for personal transit, one executive director David White wants to meet.

Healthy Ride is on track to grow its trips by nearly 20 percent from 2018. At the group’s Penn Avenue headquarters, rows of bikes line the floor, and a team of four mechanics oils chains, checks wheel spokes, and runs diagnostic tests.

Their jobs will be a lot more technical soon, White said.

“I think within three years, and definitely within five years, all bikeshare in the U.S. will be electric assist.”

There are a number of different kinds of electric bikes, but pedal-assist models are frequently used in bikeshare programs. Unlike a scooter or a motorcycle, there is no throttle; instead, sensors determine how hard someone is pedaling and the motor adds more power.

Healthy Ride will add five electric-assist bikes to its fleet this summer and track how people respond to them. Cities that have introduced e-bikes have seen ridership numbers jump. During a 2018 pilot in Austin, Texas, bikeshare organization B-cycle saw three times as many people ride an electric bike than a standard pedal bike.

Electric bikes expand people’s options, said White.

“You can haul a kid, you can grocery shop, you don't have to change your clothes, you don't have to alter what you do throughout the day,” White said. “You don't have to plan your route in a way that sort of eliminates any type of uphill climb. You can just go up the hill.”

Mechanic Ed Navish agreed.

“Pittsburgh is a very hilly city,” he said. “An electric assist bike that gives you an extra 300 watts in your pedaling power to get up these hills is going be a game changer for a lot of people.”

A 2018 survey from the National Institute for Transportation and Communities confirms those sentiments. Asked why they purchased an e-bike or converted a standard bike, respondents said they wanted to carry children or cargo, replace car trips, increase fitness or had a medical condition. “It became evident that e-bikes are making it possible for more people to ride a bicycle, many of whom are incapable of riding a standard bicycle or don’t feel safe doing so,” the study’s authors wrote.

But it isn’t enough to simply replace all of Healthy Ride’s pedal bikes with e-bikes, as Madison, Wisc. has done, White said. Instead, Pittsburgh has an opportunity to create a network that connects different modes of transit, whether that’s a bus, a bike, carpool or an electric scooter.

“I think if we can do that here in Pittsburgh … I think that we win,” he said.

Healthy Ride is one of the organizations helping to select companies to participate in a “mobility demonstration” in Pittsburgh. In April the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure asked companies to work together to create a network of personal transit options. That system will be tested in cooperation with city officials and existing transportation options.